A call to action in a global economy from the World Bank and IMF

As policy makers from developing and developed countries prepare to gather in Washington next week at the World Bank and the IMF for their spring meetings, their mission will be to push for greater progress in tackling the most pressing issues in development today. Issues such as: reducing poverty and inequality, the continuing human devastation caused by HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases, bridging the digital divide and making international trade more equitable. As they meet, demonstrators taking their cue from their victory in Seattle will try to close down the meetings. We respect the demonstrators’ right to protest, but who wins by shutting down discussion of some of the world’s most pressing problems?

We need those discussions. First, because these events spur important public debate about the big economic, political and social questions we face in a frantically changing world. But more importantly, because despite all the efforts of governments, official institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), we will never significantly reduce the number of hungry children in the world unless we build dynamic coalitions of governments, civil society and the private sector to construct a global economy that benefits all people.

And we need these coalitions now more than ever. Despite years of relative peace and prosperity in industrialized countries, global poverty is getting worse. Nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, 1.2 billion people, now live in extreme poverty. Over the next two decades this ratio could grow, as two billion extra people will be added to the planet, largely in poor countries. More troubling still is the gap between rich and poor. In Brazil, for example, the poorest 20 percent of the population earns just 2.5 percent of the country’s income, while the richest 20 percent control nearly two-thirds of that wealth. This is not just an extreme case. Alarming ratios are seen in countries as different as Colombia and Niger, South Africa and Russia.

There are those who argue that global economic integration is behind these alarming numbers. And to be sure, the benefits of globalization can be cruelly distributed. In China, Malaysia and Thailand, where growth and integration have been both strong and sustained, inequality has grown over the last decade. This needs to be addressed, but simply blaming globalization does not help. I have visited too many countries virtually isolated from the global economy where the water is too poisonous to drink, children starve for lack of food and simply giving birth is a leading cause of death.

Trade and financial liberalization by themselves are not the answer to reduce poverty worldwide, but increasing contact between people separated by nothing more than geography, including a more open exchange of goods and capital – and ideas – can be a vital piece of the puzzle.

I believe we can use the energy and technology driving globalization to help the poor. Call it global action, but if we are creative and committed, we can take advantage of this moment in history to do miraculous things. Indeed, they are already happening.

There is simply no reason why thousands of children should die every day from preventable disease, and generations of young people disappear as a result of AIDS, when partnerships among international organizations, governments, civil society, and private drug companies can make a difference. I am pleased to say that the World Bank is a participant, along with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Aventis Pasteur, the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association in having launched the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI). Its mission is straightforward: to protect all children, no matter how poor, from preventable disease. I am confident that through this coalition we will help create conditions in which pharmaceutical companies can not only make drugs available to those who desperately need them but also improve their long-term market competitiveness.

There is no reason why hundreds of millions of people living in Central Asia, Latin America or Africa should be cut off from the ideas changing the rest of the world, or why these ideas should not be enriched by their local experience simply because of a lack of readily available cable or satellite technology.

The capacity of the Internet – yet to be fully imagined – to eliminate forever the knowledge gap between rich and poor countries may be the single most important determinant of what our world will look like in 50 years. Whether it be linking rural villages in India with one another, health clinics in Kazakhstan to hospitals in Paris, or farmers in Ukraine to commodity markets in Chicago, we have the power to accelerate development by generations.

And there is no reason that economic development must yield environmental destruction. In January this year, the World Bank launched the world’s first market-based mechanism to address climate change and promote the transfer of finance and climate-friendly technology to developing countries. Under the initiative, funds contributed from governments and private companies will be invested in cleaner technologies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the developing world, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are then transferred to the fund’s contributors in the form of certificates. Poor countries benefit from access to clean technology and revenue from the sale of their emissions reductions; contributors are better able to meet their commitments under the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol; and the environment benefits as countries switch to efficient technologies. This is just the beginning.

The debate on globalization and its effects on the poor is legitimate and necessary. No one has a monopoly on the truth, and if they did today, it would be obsolete tomorrow. But everyone should have a voice, most importantly the poor themselves, who too often have been absent. Our challenge is to move beyond the rhetoric and recognize that we live in a time of astonishing possibility.

Whether it be immunizing all children from preventable disease or linking every school in Central Asia to the Internet, solutions to problems that seemed insurmountable just a few years ago are now within reach. But we need discussion, not closed-down meetings, and we need everyone, from those who filled the streets in Seattle to those coming to Washington to make it happen.

-The writer is president of the World Bank Group.

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