Finally, Something We Can Agree on with Bill Gates!

Peruvian workers and activist protest against the 2015 IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Lima, Peru, Oct 9, 2015.

Peruvian workers and activist protest against the 2015 IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Lima, Peru, Oct 9, 2015.

New Orleans   There’s an old saying that the sun shines on an old dog’s, how shall I say this, hind quarters, eventually, and that’s about how often we agree wholeheartedly with mega-billionaire Bill Gates, but when it does shine on his rear end, we should all have the grace to acknowledge it.

While we’re just trying to make it to the weekend, Gates laid out his weekend plans to the Wall Street Journal where he is attending the spring meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund. Yes, I know, I’d rather join you on a worm dig as well, and believe me, we’re definitely not invited. But, on this rare occasion Gates is publicly arguing a position that ACORN International and I have advocated for years, including in the Social Policy Press book I edited, Global Grassroots, so instead of having to cringe at Gates and his foundation’s unending efforts to break teacher unions, promote charter schools, and redirect all health aid to a few diseases rather than generally, we are totally on the same page.

The issue may seem narrow, but it actually involves whether or not billions of dollars in foreign aid can be given to countries that desperately need the money to advance health, education, and opportunity to poor families living in precarious positions. The problem is that the World Bank and the IMF, creatures from the last century, classify countries based on average income in determining whether they are poor or middle-income, and it matters. Several years ago in Gatineau, Canada we met with the well-respected Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) seeking support for the work ACORN was doing in mega-slums in various countries in Latin America. The program officers could not have been nicer or more supportive, but they were clear with us that the standards followed by the conservative government at the time mandated that any new allocations of CIDA support could only occur in countries that the IMF and World Bank classified as poor. In Latin America that mean that only Nicaragua and Bolivia were eligible. La Matanza outside of Buenos Aires, San Juan de Lurigancho in Lima, and the Neza outside of Mexico City were three of the ten largest slums in the world, but Argentina, Peru, and Mexico were all classified as middle-income countries, so we were out of luck.

Gates correctly makes the point that, “Today, more than 70% of the world’s poorest people – those living on less than $1.90 per day – live in countries defined as middle income, according to the World Bank.” How absurd! He also references another study that, “Countries with huge pockets of poverty like Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Ghana and Vietnam could lose as much as 40% of their development assistance in the next few years….,” all because of this out of date classification system and its deadly consequences.

Of course now that he’s more of a politician than a philanthropist, he throws out some red meat for the conservatives about how we can make these countries better at collecting taxes, which seems a little like trying to get water out of a stone, but, whatever, he’s right that the IMF and World Bank – and all of the countries griping the purse strings – need to get with the 21st century and get over their post-World War II thinking about countries and look at what is really has to be done to reduce poverty, rather than some bright light test that fails to help the poor. They may not have been willing to listen to us, but Gates’ voice needs to be heard, and they might just listen to him, and that would be a good thing for a change.

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Shaming the World Bank to Put its Mouth Where Its Money Is

World-Bank-land-and-water-grab-protest-e1396800202193New Orleans     The World Bank, a joint financing project invariably led by an American, but amalgamating many countries resources for major, and sometimes controversial, public works and other investments in developing countries particularly, is big bucks. If you want to build a power plant, a dam, a railroad, or anything in the billions, your country’s delegation is going to apply for a visa and start packing for a trip to Washington, DC to appeal for funds. Let’s agree from the onset that the World Bank has the purse strings so it has a big stick in stirring the drink and making stuff happen.

Human Rights Watch has issued a report called “At Your Own Risk” running almost 150 pages and documenting cases in countries from India to Cambodia, Uganda to Uzbekistan, and around the globe where despite their own rules, demanding community engagement and a direct process for complaints and grievances, they have allowed critics of World Bank funded projects to be harassed, imprisoned, and abused with impunity.   A story cited in India is standard. Dam projects in India have been battlegrounds for more than a decade on any number of grounds, so the World Bank is fully aware that any project of this nature they fund is going to be controversial.

Human Rights cited a recent example that is as good as any:

Beginning in February 2015, 40-50 residents of Durgapur village in northern India, mostly women, sat in protest for more than a month. A state-owned company called the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation India Ltd. (THDC) was developing a hydroelectric power project near their community and some villagers believed that tunneling for the project endangered their homes and the overall well-being of their community. The women and their children sat all day in protest, singing folk songs that gave voice to their worries regarding the future, as well as songs of courage and hope.

Seems like standard fare and no big deal in the world’s largest democracy, as India styles itself, and certainly a country that has a long history of dealing with much harder edged protests and demonstrations. But in this case the women were harassed, threatened with reprisals, personally attacked, and abused. Human Rights and just plain common sense raises the question, “Why does the World Bank allow this kind of activity?”

Human Rights Watch had a multi-paged list of recommendations for the World Bank, its management, shareholders, and the countries involved about doing better. More training, more consultations, more serious attention to complaints, and so forth.

Strangely missing was the one recommendation that would have real meaning: cut the money off!

If you have a big stick, use it!  Not just to dig dirt, block water, or whatever but also to protect speech, assembly and the basic rights of communities on the wrong end of these high-faluting developments.

What’s with the World Bank? Can’t they really stand for something besides interest rates and repayments schedules? Can’t they stand for the voiceless as well as the big whoops among the politicians and rich developers where their projects are being built? And, why are we – and Human Rights Watch – biting our tongue and not demanding that they cut the money off, if basic rights of people and communities are not respected?

Shaming isn’t enough. They need to step up or shut down.

***
Pete Seeger – This Land is Your Land

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