When finance ministers gather in Washington for the spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, hardly anyone notices except the maotres'd. But this year's Apr. 16-17 confab will be hard to ignore. It will attract a huge, motley crowd of environmentalists, human-rights advocates, union members, and AIDS activists, who will try to disrupt the meetings.
They're out to repeat the success of last December's protests in Seattle that helped sabotage World Trade Organization talks. So will the pin-striped delegates also be forced to hustle home amid clouds of tear gas and brawling in the streets? Not necessarily. Global finance is not as polarizing an issue as trade, the protesters aren't as organized this time, and capital police are better prepared than their Seattle colleagues.
Still, the World Bank and IMF are treading carefully. Many of the protesters may not understand the minutiae of these agencies, which were formed after World War II to fight global poverty and avert economic crises. But the demonstrators--who should be substantially fewer than the 60,000 in Seattle--have the zeal of missionaries and believe that secretive, multilateral institutions have lost their way. The IMF, World Bank, and WTO make up what protest literature terms a "global triad" that forces countries to restructure economies to favor corporate managers, investors, and speculators.
Environmentalists charge that World Bank loans finance ecosystem-damaging projects such as China's massive Three Gorges Dam. Human-rights supporters and unionists argue that the lending agencies support countries that restrict religious freedom and tolerate sweatshops. AIDS activists complain that neither institution does enough to get low-cost AIDS drugs to developing nations. Their hit list even includes the America Online-Time Warner merger, which the groups fear will "globally homogenize" content on the Net and harm local cultures. "These institutions need to be agents for the poorest people rather than for banks and large corporations," says Carol Welch, a Friends of the Earth analyst.
DOWNSIDE. Already, demonstrators are making headway with their efforts to shine a harsh light on globalization's downside. In March, Stanley Fischer, the IMF's acting managing director, met with Friends of the Earth, poverty group Oxfam International, and other activists. Meeting participants say they came away encouraged that top fund officials were finally starting to pay attention to their concerns, though they aren't expecting substantial changes anytime soon.
Bank and fund officials say the agencies are trying to speed up Third World debt writeoffs--a key demand of some demonstrators. And the finance ministers for the first time will discuss ways to fund more AIDS programs. Says Juliette Beck of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human-rights group: "Regardless of whether we're able to shut down the meetings, we've already raised public awareness."
After their attempt at consciousness-raising in Washington, D.C., the anti-globalists won't rest. They want to use the momentum from Seattle to create a new social movement on a level with Vietnam War protests. They plan to converge on the national political conventions this summer, then to take to the streets of Prague, where the IMF and World Bank will meet in September. In the process, they hope to turn a ragtag coalition into a potent, worldwide force that prods bankers and politicians into tempering the fervor for globalization and confronting its side effects.