The April 16 protests in Washington, DC against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank made history and marked a new phase in the effort to halt and reverse the processes of corporate globalization.
Citizens in developing countries -- from Jordan to Zambia, Indonesia to Venezuela -- have long protested against the policies of the IMF and World Bank. On April 16, for the first time, citizens in the United States came out in large numbers to join the calls for a rollback of IMF and World Bank powers.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets, or joined a permitted demonstration on the Ellipse to denounce structural adjustment policies -- the deregulatory policy package that the Fund and Bank impose on country after country -- for hurting the poor and exacerbating economic inequality.
The exact impact of the demonstrations will only be apparent in the years to come, but it is already clear that the protests -- evidence of the deepening citizen movement against corporate globalization -- have had dramatic effect.
First, the US public is newly aware of what the IMF and World Bank are, and millions of people in the United States have for the first time learned of how the institutions' policies hurt people in poor countries.
In anticipation of the protests, the mainstream media focused some attention on structural adjustment policies, both by conveying the viewpoints of the Mobilization for Global Justice and, in some instances, by actually reporting on the effects of structural adjustment in countries like Haiti or Tanzania. There was probably more US mainstream media coverage of IMF/World Bank/structural adjustment issues in the past two weeks than in the previous 20 years combined.
The growing US public concern with IMF and World Bank policy is crucial because while the Fund and Bank are unaccountable to those people in the Third World they are allegedly trying to help, they are responsive to the United States -- the largest shareholder in both institutions and the dominant influence at the IMF in particular. The second noteworthy outcome from the April 16 protests was the role of US organized labor in the permitted demonstration on the Ellipse. The AFL-CIO and a number of major unions, including the Service Employees, the Teamsters, the Steelworkers, the American Federation of Government Employees, the United Electrical Workers, and the textile union UNITE endorsed the demonstration, and many of the unions sent top official to address the rally.
Two years ago, the AFL-CIO lent its support to the Clinton administration's request for $18 billion in funding for the IMF, so the newfound willingness to strongly denounce IMF and Bank structural adjustment policies represents an important shift.
The AFL-CIO is also beginning to develop a penetrating critique of the notion of export-led development -- one of the core principles of structural adjustment. Instead of joining in a race to the bottom to produce goods using sweatshop labor or lax environmental standards, the AFL-CIO is suggesting, countries should instead concentrate on developing productive capacity to meet local needs.
A third historic occurrence was the endorsement by members of the G-77 -- a grouping of most of the world's developing nations -- of the Washington protests and a stinging condemnation of the Fund and Bank's structural adjustment policies.
"I, for one, support the demonstrators," said Arthur Mbanefo of Nigeria, spokesperson for the G-77 during its recent three-day summit in Havana. "Many countries have rejected the results of various policy initiatives of the World Bank and IMF," he said, citing privatization, a refusal to cancel debt and a "one-size-fits-all" structural adjustment agenda. "We are very supportive of demonstrations that could forcefully handle those concerns."
The DC protests seem to have exerted a "Columbus effect." Just as the Columbus, Ohio protests against Clinton administration plans to bomb Iraq led Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to comment that surely he could oppose bombing if the people of Columbus did, so the Washington protests against the IMF and World Bank have created more political space for developing countries to speak up on behalf of their own interests.
The IMF and World Bank spokespeople acknowledged the protests -- pointing out that it was impossible to ignore them. They emphasized that they are increasingly focusing on poverty and trying to empower the poor. But they refuse to abandon their emphasis on structural adjustment, and in fact are using their very modest debt-relief initiative to force poor countries to undergo still more, carefully monitored structural adjustment.
Real change at the IMF and World Bank will come not from voluntary "reforms" in their policies, but from external forces -- such as the US Congress or large numbers of developing country governments cooperating closely -- that demand that IMF and Bank powers be curtailed.
With the April 16 protests shining light on the policies of the IMF and World Bank, expanding the coalition opposed to structural adjustment and revealing that discontent in the developing world with IMF and Bank policies is increasingly matched by similar outrage in the rich nations, the prospect of a successful drive to shrink the authority and power of the IMF and Bank is greater than at any time in recent history.