- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2000

The World Bank president was conciliatory toward protesters yesterday, saying their criticisms have been heard and the lending agency is committed to fighting poverty, AIDS and poor living conditions in poor countries.

"I was affected by the demonstrations because I think we're doing already the things they're complaining about," said World Bank President James Wolfensohn after a morning meeting of the bank's development committee that thousands of protesters sought without success to block.

"Why would you have so many people trying to stop a meeting the entire goal of which is to deal with AIDS, poverty and development?" he said. "We were a bit nonplused, to be honest."

Mr. Wolfensohn said the protests reflect "uncertainty about globalization, a feeling of exclusion" on the part of some Americans. "You have to listen to that and see how you can do better."

The bank president throughout the week of demonstrations has sought to make peace with the protesters, inviting them to meet with him. His offers have been spurned by protest leaders, including the 50 Years is Enough and Mobilization for Global Justice coalitions that organized the protests. Those groups dismiss the bank's efforts as inadequate.

Still, his conciliatory remarks contrast markedly with the defiant statements by world finance ministers attending an International Monetary Fund meeting Sunday. Those ministers largely rejected and ignored the demands of the protesters.

The difference in tone partly reflects the different missions of the international lending agencies. The World Bank is focused more on helping poor countries grow and develop, while the IMF is primarily a crisis-management agency that is called in when countries are experiencing financial distress.

Despite the branch offered by Mr. Wolfensohn yesterday, protesters said they were disheartened at failing to shut down the two-day meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund or, short of that, prod the delegates to make concrete progress at the meetings.

"The IMF and World Bank spring 2000 meetings closed today having failed to move significantly forward on debt cancellation for the world's poorest countries," the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, a sponsor of the protests, said in a statement, calling the debt situation "an emerging scandal."

Despite repeated pledges by the IMF and the bank to speed up $27 billion in debt relief to 41 nations, the coalition said that progress remains painfully slow, with only five nations so far having actually received any relief under the program, which was established in 1996.

But the World Bank and IMF are adamant that they first must ensure that any money freed up by forgiving debts is used on health care, education and poverty reduction and that takes time.

Mr. Wolfensohn said other nonprofit organizations that have criticized the glacial pace of debt relief have come to see the wisdom of this. About 20 of those groups, including the Overseas Private Development Council and National Peace Corps coalition, sent a letter to Mr. Wolfensohn yesterday, saying they largely support the bank's efforts.

Many advocates for the poor agree that conditions on the debt relief are needed to ensure that the money is not diverted by corrupt governments to finance military buildups and civil wars, such as those that have been plaguing some of the most impoverished African countries.

The "poverty reduction strategies" that the bank and IMF require countries to put in place before they receive relief under the program actually have been a good exercise in democracy, Mr. Wolfensohn said, since many Third World governments do not ordinarily consult with citizens groups as they are required to do in preparing such plans.

Still, he tried to appease the protesters, saying the bank is more focused than ever on the same causes that stoked the demonstrations.

The bank and IMF hope to approve debt relief for another 15 countries by the end of the year, he said. And he told delegates at the morning meeting that the World Bank will approve funding for any "sensible" program to address the AIDS crisis in Africa and other poor countries.

Even in the "middle-income" countries where the bank lends, such as Mexico and Brazil, the World Bank has been focusing its efforts and money on the neediest areas, such as Brazil's impoverished northeast, he said.

And the bank is taking on the entrenched political interests in developed countries like the United States and the European Union, by advocating the elimination of tariffs on imports of agricultural goods from the poorest countries, he said.

Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda, the finance minister of Thailand and chairman of the bank's development committee, said the committee's call for duty-free trade on farm goods yesterday was a triumph for Third World countries.

He too sought to assure protesters that their voices had been heard.

"Many ministers are sensitive to what's been going on here in Washington. The big question is whether globalization has brought even prosperity," he said.

Sherman Katz of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the protesters failed not only to shut down the meetings, but to make a case for radical reform of the institutions.

"The protesters have not suggested any alternative to replace the $30 billion in development aid provided annually by the bank to developing countries," he said.

"The record, unrebutted by the protesters, is that the focus of the bank aid has moved substantially in the direction of education, health [including HIV-AIDS vaccination] and community action programs. Bank lending for power, oil and gas projects has declined dramatically," he said.

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