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Emerging Markets Clash with Anachronistic Institutions

Kanya D'Almeida

WASHINGTON, Apr 16 2011 (IPS) - The first weeks of April have witnessed a maelstrom of multilateralism – from the chambers of the annual Spring Meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) here to the round tables of the BRICS summit in the resort island of the Hainan province in China – leaving in its wake a tome of unanswered questions regarding the contours and configurations of the new world order.

Referring to Mohamed Bouazizi – the iconic fruit-vendor whose last desperate act of self-immolation on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, a rural town in Tunisia marred by corruption and economic strife, sparked the ongoing Arab Spring – World Bank President Robert Zoellick said at the opening press conference here on Thursday, “Keep in mind – the late Mr. Bouazizi was driven to burn himself alive because he was harassed with red tape.”

Stressing that international aid was not just a question of money, Zoellick added that lessons from the Arab Spring pointed to the necessity of democratic reforms and for the urgent need for governments to provide basic employment opportunities to their people.

Zoellick’s words perfectly capture the nature of the behemoth global conventions happening simultaneously around the world, where calls for democracy in the spirit of recent revolutionary fervor walk complacently alongside a strict adherence to old development agendas.

“We need to act fast on modernizing multilateral institutions,” Zoellick said at a panel discussion at the World Bank headquarters here on Thursday.

Referring to the Bank’s birth in the catacomb of the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), he added, “Reconstruction is no longer what it was in the post-World War II era… It now means Cote d’Ivoire, Southern Sudan, Liberia, Sri Lanka and, I hope, Libya.”

While touching lightly on the changing geopolitical-economic landscape, Zoellick did not tarry long enough to address the frustrations of increasingly irate emerging market countries, whose assembly on the other side of the world has heavy consequences for world economy.

The collective economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, known by their acronym BRICS, are worth roughly 12 trillion dollars, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, and are slated to surpass the 15-trillion-dollar-strong United States’ economy as soon as 2020.

Moises Naim, a former executive director of the World Bank, reported this week that developing economies grew by 6.1 percent every year since 2000, while the advanced economies straggled far behind, at an average of about 1.8 percent annual growth.

According to Jin Canrong, a professor of international studies at the Renmin University in Beijing, BRICS account for 18 percent of global GDP, and are straining against the leash of the old, Western imperial system to join the “rule-makers and judges” in what they consider their rightful place – a seat at every major decision-making table.

Reflecting the determination of what commentators have been calling “strange but strong bedfellows”, the final statement of the BRICS summit stated that the signatories to the Sanya Declaration were committed to revising the global monetary system in favour of “a broad based international reserve currency system,” the Washington Post reported Friday, an effort to reduce reliance on the dollar.

BRICS leaders also expressed the desire to exert a heavier hand on which currencies should sit in the IMF-sponsored “basket” of emergency reserves.

Overshadowing Old Outrage

While hot winds blow fresh demands from the South over the meetings in Washington, they also seem to have swept away some of the old furies that previously brought activists, organisers and progressive economists out in droves whenever the financial giants convened to map the economic future of the world.

Naim writes “the demise of the IMF/World Bank protests is a reflection of broader transformations in the international economy […] that have rendered these institutions less fearsome and less relevant.”

However, the numbers holding up international financial institutions (IFIs) tell a different story – according to a recent report in the Financial Times, the IMF has tripled its resources and “escaped its reputation as a thumb-screw merchant.”

On Thursday, Zoellick said at a panel that the Bank hoped to “move 100 million dollars into Cote d’Ivoire in the next couple of weeks,” with still larger amounts for “citizen security and development” stashed within quite easy reach.

Earlier Friday, the New York Times reported that the Bank planned to move 500 million dollars into Tunisia in exchange for a broad package of reforms. A report from the Bretton Woods Project, outlining the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) lending, noted that lending commitments reached a record 18 billion dollars in the 2010 fiscal year.

Despite the rocky recovery of the 2008 crash, IFIs do not appear to be suffering from a dearth of resources – it is more likely that the cacophony from the political elite of the developing world has drowned out the old dissent against fiscal austerity, financial deregulation, free capital flows, and tariff cuts – in other words, against the neoliberal policies that continue to thrive despite the revolutionary upheavals of the last six months and that have found a nurturing surrogate in the bellies of the rising economies.

“What these so-called rising powers represent is the power of mobile capital, the power of multinational corporations seeking the cheapest place with the highest exploitation,” Vandana Shiva, renowned Indian environmentalist and author on bioethics and genetic engineering, told IPS.

“And when it’s the World Bank or the multilateralism of the G20 talking, you know it’s not going to represent the multilateralism of the people,” she added.

Privileging People’s Democracy

Even in the vortex of the power struggles between dominant and emerging financiers, many critics remain firmly rooted in the old soil that housed historic movements against capitalist expansion and the impact of neoliberal policies on local economies and indigenous communities.

“The World Bank has historically used its clout to promote undemocratic processes,” Shiva told IPS. “They have pushed India to violate the laws of the tribals and the farmers, because once they settle on a certain line of investment, then no law that supports the democratic rights of the people can survive – if they finance a superhighway that highway gets built, if they finance a mining project, that project happens no matter who or what it destroys in the process.”

Addressing Zoellick at a panel at the World Bank Thursday, Jay Naidoo, founding General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the former Minister of Communications in President Nelson Mandela’s cabinet, said, “Global governance cannot be determined by elites, sitting in fora like we are now – civil society cannot simply be relegated to side forums at events like these.”

Reiterating the fact that at the core of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was the struggle against a labour system that exploited black workers, Naidoo was confident that real democratic movements would spring from the grassroots, oblivious to conversations in Washington.

“Of course there will be attempts to co-opt these movements but I am confident that the leaders know what they want,” Naidoo told IPS.

Referring to the recommendations of this year’s World Development Report (WDR), Louise Arbour, President of the International Crisis Group, warned that the Bank’s adherence to the old discourse of security and stability have limited scope for an evolving landscape.

“I despair of how the rule of law has been trivialised and reduced to law enforcement,” Arbour said. “The need is not to build more police forces or more prisons but to move to a justice-oriented model where all citizens are equal before the law,” Arbour said.

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