Information Age changes the status of activismof activism

This article is the first in a three-part series.

The room is Corcoran 302. It’s filled with about 40 students who have come together to plan and organize their activities for the April 16 protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Part of their planning and organizing is coming up with a message to deliver to media they see as hostile. They share their views with each other and a camera from NBC.

We’re making a difference, Karen, of the a16 (April 16) Coalition says.

You’re here because you want to be, she adds as the NBC camera pans down to get the details of her outfit.

The camera focuses on another young man’s shoes, Adidas, as he talks about his reason for being at the meeting – to do something about the horrors of sweatshops.

The camera is absent as Dan, head of GW’s Progressive Student Union, rages at the fact that he can’t wear clothes that weren’t made in a sweatshop. The camera also misses his explanation of why.

The IMF and World Bank say `we’re going to make China the sweatshop of the world,’ he says, And now China is the sweatshop of the world.

Two months earlier, before news of the looming protests began showing up on the pages of newspapers worldwide, several dozen representatives from non-governmental organizations occupied information booths set up in the World Bank’s massive glass atrium as part of the bank’s Development Marketplace.

More than 300 of these organizations, representing interests as diverse as the countries represented by the World Bank itself, were invited to the two-day event to suggest and promote new world development tactics that vary from those typical of the World Bank.

For an institution that is restricted from advertising beyond the occasional public service announcement, these events play an essential role in promoting communication between the bank and its sometimes-adversarial public counterparts.

With the annual spring meetings between finance ministers from the World Bank and the IMF days away, signs of the protest movement and the effort to control it are evident in the downtown area surrounding the bank. While both groups, the World Bank and those protesting it, want to disseminate information about themselves, both feel that traditional media outlets aren’t giving them that opportunity. Both have responded in the same way, with Web sites.

Waging an online protest

One of the a16 coalition’s mottoes is Educate to Mobilize. To that end, its Web site (www.A16.org) is loaded with all kinds of facts about World Bank and IMF policies and their effects. The facts offered by a16 generally deal with the effects of World Bank loans on countries in need. Here are some examples:

– In Brazil, government spending on environmental programs was cut by two-thirds to meet fiscal targets set by the IMF.

– Exports of natural resources have increased at astonishing rates in many IMF-adjusting countries. Benin saw exports of a type of wood increase fourfold between 1992 and 1998.

– Between 1990 and 1995, forest loss for the 41 heavily indebted poor countries greatly exceeded the rate of forest loss for the world. Nicaragua and Honduras lost almost 12 percent of their forests, which is 7.5 times greater than the world rate.

We are the first movement ever to use (computer) technology to our benefit, said one GW student at a recent a16 Coalition meeting.

The official site of the World Bank (www.worldbank.org) presents quite a different perspective on the issues.

The bank’s motto – a world free from poverty – echoes through every page. Like the a16 site, eye-catching numbers and quotable percentages underscore a sense of urgency and catastrophe while trying to highlight the bank’s most important issues and justify its role in the developing world.

Worldwide, 130 million children do not attend primary schools. 80 percent of those children are females. Thirty-four million people are infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide, and 15,000 more contract the disease each day.

The bank’s Web site contains hundreds of similar statistics. Unfortunately, most of the controversial issues being attacked by protestors require a greater explanation than either of the Web sites offer with factoids.

Surprisingly, answers to specific questions can easily be found with little more than a phone call. Contact the World Bank, and you are likely to be connected with any one of several hundred experts on regions and issues – people such as Robert Calderisi, the World Bank spokesman for Africa who recently celebrated his 20th anniversary with the bank.

Countries like Korea, Chile and Mexico do not complain about (structural) adjustment. It is only in Africa that people complain about the process, he says before giving reasons for the continent’s plight. His explanation touches upon problems such as stagnant economic growth that is unable to exceed the yearly increase in population, and Africa’s loss of 50 percent of its markets – a loss of income of $70 billion a year – to other developing countries.

He admits that shrinking economies and a limited operating budget of only $3 billion a year forced the bank to insist that the government re-direct spending toward programs that would benefit the greatest amount of people, especially the poor.

The real question is, how much worse Africa would have been without this special assistance, he says. We preferred to face the criticism rather than regret doing nothing.

The way the World Bank is defined in most of the a16 Coalition’s literature, however, seems intrinsically evil.

The IMF and World Bank have been empowered by the governments which control it with imposing economic austerity policies in the countries of the so-called `third world,’ according to the a16 Web site and several fliers. Once southern countries build up large external debts, as most have, they cannot get credit or cash anywhere else and are forced to go to these international institutions and accept whatever conditions are demanded of them.

Predictably, the bank’s perception of itself is much more positive.

The bank uses its financial resources, its highly trained staff, and its extensive knowledge base to individually help each developing country onto a path of stable, sustainable and equitable growth, reads the opening page of the bank’s Web site.

Of course, both the World Bank and the a16 go far beyond providing information on the Web.

Insert your cause here

A recent teach-in that featured four speakers was sponsored by GW groups, including the Progressive Student Union, Students Dedicated to Fair Trade, The International Socialist Organization, Students for the Environment, Students Against the Death Penalty, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Latinos for Progress.

The speakers – Tanya Margolin of United Students Against Sweatshops, Loren Finkelstein of Free the Planet, Ahmed Shawki of the International Socialist Organization and Angela Hewett, an assistant professor of English at GW – all identified issues four different issues central to the protests.The core problem is the switch from economic policies focused on providing social services to economic policies focused on providing corporate services, said Finkelstein.

On the other hand, Hewett said the model of development espoused by the World Bank and its backers benefited a powerful, rich minority. She pointed out that some of the major criticisms of that model have come from transnational feminists.

Women in developing countries have been displaced and forced to work in free-trade zones where they can’t unionize, Hewett said.

This is a model that doesn’t promote women’s rights or women’s development, she said.

Women’s rights and female education are just a few of the topics mentioned by a panel of speakers gathered at the World Bank Sub-Committee on Nutrition a few days before the spring meetings.

There is no hope for development in the world if women are not given a greater role and more power, not only in the government, but in the home and society as well, says one speaker. Supporting girls’ education
is the single most efficient investment for development, adds another bank official.

The World Bank always provides a ready response. It never hurts to be an institution.

The a16 coalition, however, continued to have trouble building a consensus at its latest teach-in. Those who attended had differing opinions, not only about what the real problem with the World Bank is, but they also disagreed on whether and how to use the media.

This proves that my generation cares, says Margolin of United Students Against Sweatshops pointing to a map marked to indicate where student protests had recently taken place. You’re here because you care, and you’re going to be out there protesting on April 16th whether The Hatchet tells you to or not. Margolin was alluding to an article about GW’s preparations for riotous demonstrations and an editorial in support of those preparations that appeared in last Thursday’s Hatchet.

As Margolin led the crowd in a new chant, Who’s University? Our University! she invited the members of The Hatchet staff she recognized to join in. They did not.

This was after Loren Finkelstein advised the audience to use the media.

They are our vehicle for reaching the masses, she said. You can’t have a revolution without reaching the masses.

Fielding questions at a press luncheon on the Tuesday before protest day, more panelists from the Sub-Committee on Nutrition and the bank are candid about their view of the protest, a view that is almost entirely positive.

The energy behind the protest movement is impressive, says Dr. Richard Jolly, the committee’s chairman. You have young people as well as old bringing attention to the very issues we are promoting, and the only way that we can get attention is by debating the differences in our views.

Both Robert Calderisi and Chris Walsh of the World Bank agree, giving positive comments about their respect for the protestors and what they are trying to accomplish.

We welcome the protestors and encourage them to practice their First Amendment rights in a peaceful way, Walsh says. The World Bank/IMF meetings serve as a backdrop for these issues to gain notice in the public, and the protestors add to that by generating more attention.

I identify deeply with anyone interested in improving the well-being of others in the world, Calderisi says.

But while both men are quick to support the efforts of the protestors, they share the same puzzlement at the end objectives of the planned demonstrations.

Preparing for action

Some bank officials are confused as to why any group showing concern for the issues that affect the developing world would try to block attempts to discuss those same issues in a forum such as the spring meetings.

To close down the meetings would not only be counterproductive, but dangerous as well, Walsh says.

Peter Gallant is determined to make sure that doesn’t happen. The head of security for the World Bank, Gallant says he and his staff have been working with Metropolitan Police to ensure that the meetings go off as planned.

We understand that they have a right to protest, but they do not have a right to shut down our meetings, he says.

Outside the Bank, the police presence is steadily mounting, with barricades and uniformed officers occupying two city blocks surrounding the bank complex.

Police tape blocks streets, while throngs of intimidating policemen stand in attention on every corner.

Those who attend the a16 Coalition meetings may have an interest in shutting down the meetings, but they have no interest in anything dangerous if it means being violent.

The Web site and the fliers distributed at teach-ins and other meetings provide lists of what to bring to the protests. These never include bats or bricks. In fact, the group forbids weapons and drugs at the protests. They do encourage some protesters to bring gauze and a change of clothes, useful items in situations in which police could use tear gas, rubber bullets and clubs.

Still, the group’s motto is Educate to Mobilize. The education is clear, but mobilization leaves some room for interpretation.

I ran into some people who wanted to go to the protest drunk and high and just riot, one young woman said at a teach-in.

Well did you tell them not to riot? another asked, almost in disbelief. There was a strong consensus not only for nonviolence, but for making others aware that the coalition is nonviolent.

Still, no one at the World Bank is disputing the methods of protest being advocated by the demonstrators, and they say they feel confident that there won’t be any rehash of the fringe violence and riotous behavior seen in Seattle. But, besides the protest itself and its proposed tactics, one might be hard-pressed to find an underlying or clear goal in the movement, a problem that World Bank officials say hurts the protestors’ credibility.

They’re trying to lump too many issues together, said one panelist at the Tuesday press briefing. And they are in danger of losing sight of their goals.

You can’t just protest every single issue, especially if one of your issues is going to be something unrealistic like ending capitalism throughout the world, because people won’t take your movement seriously.

By taking on too many issues, they could easily be overlooked by the public as being too radical, and nobody will be able to decipher their message, Walsh agreed.

That may be true. The message is unclear, or maybe there are many different messages, but the goal of the protesters seems to be getting it or them out.

The winner of this battle is going to be the side that knows the most, said one GW student at a teach-in.

This is protest in the Information Age.

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