Skip to content

Six months ago, who could have imagined a crowd of 20,000 or more gathered in Washington, D.C. to protest the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank? What were the odds that such a demonstration would accompany thousands more in the streets engaging in festive civil disobedience during the spring meetings of the IMF? Things have changed dramatically in the movement against corporate globalization in the last six months. However unlikely such large-scale protests against international financial institutions which cultivate secrecy might have seemed last year, they now appear to have emerged as a part of the political landscape.

The growing protest movement against the IMF, World Bank and the World Trade Organization — and the even broader public disenchantment with these organizations — in part reflects a demand for minimal accountability from public institutions.

What are the standards of failure for the IMF? How much economic ruin, corruption and embezzlement must it permit before it is stripped of authority to do more harm?

In the last three years alone, the IMF has:

  • Contributed to and worsened financial crises in Asia and elsewhere;
  • Watched as billions of dollars of its money was stolen in Russia;
  • Failed to respond in meaningful ways to the growing global demand for debt cancellation for poor countries;
  • Bailed out big banks while impoverishing the poor; and
  • Continued to push its environmentally destructive export-led development model.

How about the World Bank? It too has compiled a record of failure. Unlike the IMF, the World Bank regularly undertakes internal review studies (a good thing) which lead to very critical reports (also a good thing), with little discernible effect on Bank policy (a bad thing).

For example:

  • A 1992 report found that nearly 40 percent of Bank projects were judged unsatisfactory, using the Bank’s own narrow measures.
  • A 1999 review of Bank structural and sectoral adjustment lending (making up about two-thirds of the Bank’s lending) found that “the majority of loans do not address poverty directly, the likely economic impact of proposed operations on the poor, or ways to mitigate negative effects of reform.”
  • A 1999 report on forests determined that despite a Bank goal of reducing tropical forest destruction, “Bank influence on containing rates of deforestation of tropical moist forests has been negligible in the 20 countries with the most threatened tropical moist forests.”
  • World Bank lending in support of big dams and other projects often leads to mass, forced resettlement of thousands of people. The Bank tries to alleviate the worst effects, with minimal success. “The core objective of resettlement planning, namely the restoration or improvement of incomes and standards of living, is still not being achieved, except in a few projects,” a 1994 Bank report found.

Having seen the IMF and the Bank contribute to increasing poverty, deepening economic inequality and environmental degradation — all while opening developing countries up to exploitation by multinational corporations — a broad coalition came together in Washington to demand an end to the institutions’ destructive practices.

Among the many important features of the coalition is the increasing surge of student understanding and opposition to corporate globalization. Young people are on the cutting-edge of the movement, providing it with creativity, energy, vitality — and hopefully long-term staying power.

Also critical is the changing role of the labor movement. Where organized labor was a primary organizer of the rally in Seattle, labor unions played a much smaller role in the Washington, D.C. rally. But labor has a moredirect stake in trade debates, and so the unions’ involvement in the April 16 protests was in some ways more significant than in Seattle — it illustrates an important evolution in labor’s approach to global economic issues, and a new willingness to pose fundamental challenges to corporate globalization.

What’s next for the movement against corporate globalization? In the U.S. Congress, there is an important upcoming vote on whether the WTO’s powers should be expanded by permitting authoritarian China to join the organization. Beyond that, there are numerous campaigns to be waged on sweatshops, global warming, biotechnology and countless other issues.

It may be premature to say where the next large-scale demonstration will occur, but it is certain that corporate globalization is facing a brewing citizen reaction in developing and industrialized countries alike. The call is growing for new economic arrangements that emphasize accountability, democratic control, ecological sustainability and the leveling of economic inequality.