The Multinational Monitor

September 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 9

The Power of Protest
Critics Explain How People Can
Affect the IMF and World Bank

An Interview with Njoki Njoroge Njehu

Njoki Njoroge Njehu is the director of 50 Years Is Enough, a U.S. network for global economic justice consisting of over 200 U.S. grassroots and policy organizations dedicated to the profound transformation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

There are a lot of things being planned around the fall protests in Washington, D.C. that are very exciting and that are a show of the kind of creativity that could flourish if we didn’t have just one model of development and one economic model, with nothing else allowed.

Multinational Monitor: Where do you think the IMF and the World Bank are politically compared to where they were three years ago?
Njoki Njoroge Njehu:
They are on the defensive. Activists and campaigners against the IMF and World Bank have been quite successful in putting the institutions’ track record into the public arena. As a result, they are better known, and not in a positive way.

I think they are struggling to come up with new rhetoric. They are not yet at the point where they want to enact the kind of changes that are required. They are figuring out new ways of saying, “Yes we care about poverty, look at how much we are doing about poverty.” An example is their outrageous display of a red ribbon on their Washington, D.C. headquarters for World AIDS Day in 2000.

They are at a point where they need to seriously reexamine their track record. It is not enough for [World Bank President] James Wolfensohn to say, “I’m not embarrassed to say that Cuba has done a lot better even though they haven’t followed our advice.” The Bank needs to examine why Cuba and other countries have succeeded in areas like healthcare and education, and what other countries could do to succeed as well, rather than continuing with the same orthodoxy.

MM: Do you attribute the Bank and IMF’s new posture and the new rhetoric to the protest movements?
There’s no doubt that these cosmetic changes are at least partly a result of the protest movements. For decades, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and Washington-based groups have been meeting with these organizations and not very much changed.

Because of the protests, the IMF and World Bank are more than likely to be questioned anywhere they go about what they are doing and about projects they are involved in. For five decades preceding, they had been perceived as being good for development. With the protests, the institutions’ track record has been put on the front pages of newspapers, and on radio and television.

The mass mobilizations are key to maintaining pressure on these institutions, and to creating the change we are talking about. It is quite impressive when you get millions of people saying, “Cancel the debt.” It is quite impressive when millions of people are saying, “Stop structural adjustment programs,” “Open your meetings” and “Stop environmentally destructive projects.” It is quite different than when you just have a few NGOs who are not necessarily pushing hard. I think the protests have also done a great deal to move a lot of middle-of-the-road NGOs into more progressive positions.

MM: To what extent have the rhetorical changes been matched by actual policy changes?
The reality does not match the rhetoric. When ESAF [the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility] became embattled, what did the IMF do? They renamed it the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility. Everything now has the poverty-reduction paint on it.

The institutions’ claims about fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa are not matched by reality: if their response is to lend more money, to create more debt to fight HIV/AIDS, then the rhetoric far outpaces the reality. That’s where our work is cut out for us.

When we talk about good governance, we don’t mean Japan gets a few percentage points more in voting rights, we mean that the meetings are open to the public and the media. We mean that project-affected people are able to get the information they need before projects are approved. We mean that when civil society participates in the PRSP [Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper] process, as in the case of Tanzania, people there are able to get the draft document outlining national economic plans, without needing to rely on allies in Washington to obtain the documents somehow and send them to Tanzania — documents that were drafted in Tanzania in the first place. It is not enough to talk about debt relief; what we are talking about debt cancellation. It shouldn’t be about poverty reduction, but rather poverty eradication.

MM: What are the demands for this fall’s protest?
First, there are demands on transparency and good governance: access by the media and the public to all the meetings of the IMF and World Bank. Second, debt cancellation by the Bank and the Fund, using their own resources, so they are not again feeding off the resources of taxpayers. Third, that they end policies that hinder people’s access to food, water, healthcare and the right to organize — that they stop user fees, privatization and other elements of the so-called structural adjustment programs that lead to reduced access to these basic necessities of life. Fourth, that they stop funding and supporting environmentally destructive projects, such as oil, mining and gas.

The crux of these demands is to say that these are public institutions, and they should be there for the public good, not for corporate good or corporate benefit.

MM: How will this particular round of protests affect the institutions’ policies?
For the institutions, and for the media, there was this perception that there was going to be protest fatigue. Seattle happened, and then they got hit in April of 2000. I think they were hoping that they would not have to endure any more.

It is really important that this continues to move forward. In fact, it is moving forward, and our coalitions are bigger. There is a great deal of focus and coming together around the demands. It is not just that people are coming to protest; they are coming united in what they are demanding from the World Bank and IMF. This is a new phase, and one that enables us to send a clear and articulate message forward both to the institutions and to the general public, directly and through the media.

MM: What is the range of activities that will be going on during and around the protest time?
Njoki Njoroge Njehu:
It is quite exciting. The creativity and commitment of people is coming through, in terms of the events that are being planned. We have teach-ins, conferences where people will be schooled in the specific issues of concern relating to these institutions; we have rallies and demonstrations. We have requested debates and opportunities to dialogue with the institutions, not small and in a closed room, but in public and broadly distributed. We also have cultural events planned; and we have opportunities for our colleagues from the Global South to talk about their situation on the ground and about the initiatives and campaigns they are conducting to respond to the crisis that results from the institutions’ policies.

There are a lot of things being planned that are very exciting and that are a show of the kind of creativity that could flourish if we didn’t have just one model of development and one economic model, with nothing else allowed.

The mass mobilizations are key to maintaining the pressure on the institutions, and to creating change.