Good governance or bad practices?

Two activists reflect on their mistreatment at the World Bank-IMF annual meetings in Singapore

23 November 2006 | Guest comment

The IMF-World Bank annual meetings in Singapore were visible for not addressing IMF governance reform and for the anti-corruption framework proposed by the Bank. Media all around the world not only covered the draconian security measures put in place by Singapore, but also the violation of the civil and political rights of NGOs and social movements’ representatives that went there to take part in the meetings. These measures aimed to suffocate the voices of the peoples.

Just a few days before the beginning of the parallel meeting – the International People’s Forum, in Batam, Indonesia – local police authorities announced on Indonesian television that they would not allow the Forum to be held. Civil society organisations condemned the Indonesian government for repressing the democratic right to express peaceful disapproval over World Bank and IMF policies, and the Singapore government for applying pressure on the Indonesian authorities to cancel the Forum. After intensive media work, the Indonesian authorities reversed their decision.

Another clear sign of disrespect of civil and political rights was the Singapore authorities’ blacklisting of selected organisations and individuals. The list included delegates accredited to take part in the World Bank and IMF official meetings. The prohibition was partially reversed after broad criticism. But the measure, allowing the entry of 22 of the 27 blacklisted individuals, was too little, too late. Expensive travel plans had already been undone and no reason was given for leaving five individuals on the list.

I was subjected to intense interrogation and utmost humiliation

Over 160 civil society groups joined the call for a boycott of the official IMF/World Bank meetings. The call highlighted the responsibility of both institutions for the developments.

Unfortunately, more oppressive events were still to come. And my detention and deportation was just a part of them. As part of the ActionAid delegation, I was in transit to Singapore and Batam to voice our views on the IFIs and the impact of their policies on poverty and inequality.

Like many other peaceful activists, I was held in customs and taken away for interrogation. My detention extended for more than 30 hours. During this period, I was subjected to intense interrogation and utmost humiliation. All my documents, money, personal belongings and my entire luggage were confiscated. I was fingerprinted and photographed several times. I was kept for more than 20 hours locked in a room under observation where I was not able to turn off the lights or go to the toilet unescorted. I was not allowed to speak to anyone in the same situation as me or to make phone calls. Absolutely no reason was given regarding my detention and deportation by Singaporean authorities, despite requests from the government of Brazil to allow my entry.

Many other civil society delegates were also detained for several hours, subjected to repeated interrogation, fingerprinting and searches, but released with written warnings not to participate in any protest. Others like me were deported without explanation. Both cases show a lack of respect for fundamental liberties.

Denying entry to civil society representatives violated the terms of the memorandum of understanding that Singapore signed with the global institutions. Nevertheless, no strong measures were taken by IMF and WB representatives. Instead, the IMF’s governing body, the International Monetary and Finance Committee, said in their communiqué that they “express their gratitude to the Singapore authorities for the excellent arrangements”. In spite of the ‘good governance’ discourse the World Bank and IMF showed how out of touch they are with the practice of genuine democracy.

Maria Clara Couto Soares is ActionAid’s head of policy for the Americas Region and a former economic advisor to the Brazilian Ministry of Finance.

To most people who caught the news of the banning of activists from entering Singapore, the week of 14-20 September could have been one of the more eventful in the history of the Bank-Fund meetings. World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz’s description of Singapore’s actions as “authoritarian” added interest to the whole incident, and highlighted the seeming friction between the Bank’s vaunted openness to civil society engagement and the host country’s stringent laws on public assembly.

I was one of those banned, and eventually un-banned, from entering Singapore that week. I did go to Singapore to be at a press conference with others from the International People’s Forum against the IFIs. The inconvenience and the anxiety of being labelled a “security and law and order” consideration, were the thoughts that preoccupied me at the time.

Judging from the results of the Bank-Fund meetings, the eventful week was not so eventful after all. The media attention masked the non-event inside the meetings. Developing member countries gained nothing of significance.

Realising the limited space Singapore provided for civil society action, many groups (including Focus on the Global South) sought accreditation to the meetings for the first time. We were interested in challenging the Bank and Fund on their policy and practice even in their own space. Ironically, it was precisely the Bank’s lack of influence over Singapore that made the banning of accredited participants possible.

The initial concerns that preoccupied me were forgotten and were replaced by a series of questions. Was it entirely Singapore’s fault, or indeed was it at all? Was the fault of the Bank and Fund limited to the choice of Singapore as a venue? Was it wise to have prioritised challenging the Bank and the Fund inside their space? For me, Singapore crystallised a lot of lessons learned from many years of experience with engagement. Owing to the nature of international institutions, it is imperative that we monitor them, challenge them, protest their policies and practices that have negative impacts – in short, engage. What happened in Singapore underscored how much or how little the possibility is of affecting institutions that are not designed to be responsive to what people like me say.

The Bank and the Fund are institutions structured like corporations where the biggest stockholders hold the biggest number of votes. My vote is represented by an executive director, and it is measly compared to the American vote that can veto all of the other votes combined. The relationship between the Bank and Fund and my country is that of creditor-debtor, fraught with uneven balance of power. And while some may say that the Bank and Fund are the institutions most open to civil society participation, it has to be remembered that they were not so before Latin America was de-industrialised, African development practically ground to a halt, and the entire developing world was buried in debt, courtesy of its structural adjustment programmes. In short, civil society was called in after they already made a big mess.

The Bank and the Fund profusely thanked Singapore and congratulated it for a job well done in hosting the event, keeping silent about the five people who remained on the Singapore banned list, and quieter still about the many others who were stopped, interrogated and deported. Engagement (perhaps it is high time to find another, more appropriate term) remains the norm. But if engagement favours protest and denouncement, it is because engagers get tired of dancing to bad music too.

Jenina Joy Chavez is senior associate at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based regional think tank.