WSF 2004: IMF, World Bank “out of South”

28 January 2004

And that was a banner in the less radical forum. Shirts emblazoned with the words ‘World Bank, IMF – doing the empire’s dirty business’ were hot sellers.

Over 100,000 participants were drawn to this year’s World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai, 16 – 21 January. Held on an enormous industrial complex in the north of the city, the panels, workshops, and cultural displays were held in hangars previously used as stage sets and ad-hoc tents. Innumerable marches poured through the streets outside, powerfully illustrating the depth of grassroots organising in India.

Across the highway, 250 organisations participated in a parallel conference called Mumbai Resistance (MR), organized by the Maoist sect of the Communist Party of India. MR argued that the WSF has become the “fief of a small coterie of powerful NGOs that dispose of massive budgets”. Organisers propose a “concretely-defined alternative socio-economic structure” based on socialism as against the “amorphous” slogan of the WSF that “another world is possible”.

The Bretton Woods Institutions came in for heavy criticism in both forums. In the opening panel of the WSF, South African freedom fighter Dennis Brutus’ assertion that the institutions were no longer needed was echoed by British journalist George Monbiot. Monbiot stressed the need for a global clearing house to replace the IMF. He argued that poorer nations hold a very powerful weapon in the form of debt, suggesting that “poorer nations that owed the World Bank $2.2 trillion should get together and threaten to default” unless certain conditions they lay down are met.

Joseph Stiglitz, in subsequent conference on economic globalisation and social security, sharply criticised the World Bank and IMF for policies that catered only to a “single set of objectives”. Stiglitz blamed capital market liberalization for triggering instability in developing countries. He charged that IMF demands for reform of social security systems in the South erode the few protective measures that workers have. To protect workers’ social benefits, “economic policy cannot be delegated to the technocrats of international financial institutions, but should be at the centre of democratic debate in each country.”

The role of the IFIs was a recurrent theme throughout the Forum, with a number of workshops focusing specifically on the institutions themselves. 50 Years is Enough held a session on the IMF and World Bank at 60 entitled “Time to retire”. Participants called for global days of action from 22 – 25 April during the Spring Meetings of the institutions. The Bank Information Center organised sessions on the Inspection Panel and accountability, and the Bank’s new ‘high-risk high-reward’ infrastructure strategy. APRODEV and ICCO held a workshop on PRSPs and human rights, while Bretton Woods Project and ActionAid discussed the growing inter-relationship between the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO. Debt tribunals which repudiated Southern debt and called for reparations from the north were held by Jubilee South. The Bank’s role in the privatisation of water and the mining sector was the focus of numerous workshops.

The World Bank was not without its own ‘activities’ at the Forum. World Bank chief James Wolfensohn stated in an article printed in Terraviva, the independent newspaper of the World Social Forum, that the WSF “comes not a moment too soon” and that “the dialogue in Mumbai can help restore a development oriented global agenda.” He called for a joining of “forces and resources behind the shared vision of a more balanced world”. According to Mumbai Resistance, “genuine people’s movements can clearly never be part of such a ‘shared vision’.” Despite Wolfensohn’s high profile calls, Bank observers from the civil society team and the India office kept a low profile, their organizational affiliation conspicuously absent from their registration badges.

As the WSF heads back to Porto Alegre next year, much discussion will focus on both the location for 2006 (with Cairo mooted) and the strategic direction that the Forum will take in coming years.