Saturday, December 8, 2007

Environmental & Human rights NGOs put the World Bank on Trial

Attacking the World Bank’s monopoly on knowledge

In September 2007, over 600 people assembled in Indian capital New Delhi to put the World Bank on trial. In four days of parallel sessions in front of more than a dozen judges, people from all walks of life aired their grievances against one of the world's most powerful institutions.

In convening an Independent People's Tribunal on the World Bank (WB) in India, they did more than simply chalk up another protest against injustice. The people's tribunal is a shrewd political strategy aimed at renewing a silenced debate over neoliberalism and economic policy. But most profoundly, it is a direct assault on one of the Bank's most powerful tools: the monopoly on knowledge.

In fact, based on the success of the tribunal in India, the idea is spreading. In Europe, citizens of donor nations have convened a people's tribunal on the WB with witnesses from Africa, Asia, and Latin America; and in Bangladesh, a tribunal on the WB, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and International Monetary Fund (IMF) has just been announced.

The World Bank in India

Since 1949, India has been one of the WB's favourite clients. Historically, it has borrowed more money from the Bank than any other country. Currently, it ranks among its top four borrowers, along with China, Russia, and Indonesia.

Unlike many borrowing countries, India has also been faithful in paying off its loans. Thus, providing it with an assured, steady return of funds. Without a few reliable clients such as India, the WB would be hard pressed to continue its operations.

In its early decades, the WB emphasised on infrastructure projects. It lent money for dams, canals, railways, highways and other large construction projects. These endeavours generally required foreign expertise, and the funding was largely used to hire foreign multinational firms to build infrastructure.

In India, the most infamous of these projects are the Sardar Sarovar dams on the Narmada river. These structures eventually became such a political liability that the World Bank jettisoned them. However, it continues to finance infrastructure. It has recently recommitted itself to "high risk, high reward" projects in the same vein as the Narmada project.


In recent years, the World Bank has attempted to formalise this dominance of the debate by enthroning itself as "the Knowledge Bank" – the single source for all information, knowledge, and theory on developing countries' economies.

What this means in practice is that alternatives to the Bank's neoliberal agenda are not merely rejected, they are never even considered.

When New Delhi took a WB loan to design improvements in its municipal water supply system, there was no debate about what the priorities should be or which of the various models should be employed. The entire design of the project was handed over to PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC), an international consulting firm and one of the Bank's pet contractors.

PWC, unsurprisingly, returned a blueprint for privatisation, without any mention of alternatives. The people's voices, those who would drink the water and pay for it, were never heard.

The people's knowledge

Not surprisingly, the voices of India's poor and marginalised are conspicuously absent from the Knowledge Bank. Though, the WB fetishises them with lush, National Geographic-style photographs and heartwarming anecdotes, they are excluded from its decision-making processes.

Over 60 groups, including social movements, communities, NGOs and unions, began planning the tribunal last year. It was an incremental process of refining the concept while broadening the base of supporters. The idea of a people's tribunal caught everyone's imagination.

The tribunal attracted a 15-member jury from a wide range of fields, including historian Romila Thapar, writer Arundhati Roy, activist Aruna Roy, former Supreme Court Justice P.B. Sawant, former finance secretary S.P. Shukla, former water secretary Ramaswamy Iyer, scientist Meher Engineer, economist Amit Bhaduri, Thai spiritual leader Sulak Sivaraksa and Mexican economist Alejandro Nadal.

In their preliminary findings, they found "increased and needless human suffering since 1991 among hundreds of millions of India's poorest and most disadvantaged" and that "World Bank’s economic restructuring, structural adjustment, and sector loans have directly promoted and helped to finance these economic policy changes, which are a disaster for much of India's more than 700 million rural inhabitants, and most disastrous of all for poor farmers."

The tribunal concluded: "[T]he net effect of many Bank prescribed policy 'reforms' appears to be the reorientation of the Indian state priorities from striving to secure a safety net for the poor and vulnerable to providing a safety net for large domestic and international corporations and investors."

The jury also took note of the propaganda that the Bank employs to disguise this reality. "One of the disturbing impressions we gathered from the presentations is that the Bank seems to have developed the art of making policies whose safeguards are only on paper.

It has developed a language game in which words like empowerment actually mean disempowerment, sustainable means unsustainable, public-private partnership means using the public to promote the interests of the private."

One thing that the jury was unable to hear was the defence of the World Bank itself. The Bank initially had accepted the tribunal's invitation to appear and defend itself against the charges, reneging at the last moment saying that it would not be held accountable to such a forum.

Here is the full article.