Czech Republic: Havel Brings IMF/WB Face-To-Face with Critics

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PRAGUE -- Czech President Vaclav Havel brought leaders of the IMF and the World Bank together with their critics on Saturday in the hope dialogue would replace demonstrations as the keynote of this week's gatherings.

Havel had hoped that high-level discussion between the financial institutions and critics of their policies on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank would take the steam out of protests and prevent violence.

But there appeared to be limits to the ideological concessions anti-poverty critics and the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank would make to each other, irregardless of the civility of the forum.

"We consider the termination of these institutions and the cancellation of the debt of poor countries to be essential conditions for a solution on world poverty," said panel member Katerina Liskova of Czech human rights group Nesehnuti.

"To ask that these two institutions be shut down is to ask for the world's poor to be left to their own devices," responded Trevor Manuel, South African finance minister and current head of the board of governors of the IMF.

The World Bank and the IMF, partly in response to demonstrations at previous summits, have been keen to show during the 10 days of meetings in Prague that they were willing to listen to criticism and were acting fast to relieve poverty.

World Bank head James Wolfensohn, who has already met representatives of campaign groups, repeated his message that the Bank was listening to its critics and responding to charges that its lending programs did more harm than good.

"I welcome the debate today... We are trying to reach out, but I have to say that there are images of our institutions which make dialogue rather difficult. Images that have been put to you today: simple, clear, aggressive, destructive."

"You should not regard us as a black, evil force... Maybe we've done things wrong, I'm sure we have in many cases, but please understand... our objectives are very similar to those of the people in the streets."


Harsh words came from Walden Bello, an activist with the Focus on the Global Growth group, who said the World Bank had propped up dictators such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet and Indonesia's President Suharto. Others said the IMF and Bank were ruining the environment.

Koehler told the panel the IMF needed to be reformed, but that no loan recipients were calling for the fund's closure. He added no one had a quick fix, but he worked with his heart and head.

Bello said the debate had not touched on fundamental issues. He fired back, "What have we heard? That Mr. Koehler has a heart? What we want is hard answers for hard questions!"


United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who moderated the panel, called for the world's top institutions to unite in making respect for human rights in target countries the key condition for international assistance.

She added that the globally accepted regulations concerning human rights, the enviroNment and finance were not well enough coordinated toward a common goal.

"It seems to me that we must find ways of improving communications and indeed cross referencing between (different) sets of rules if we are to put a human face on globalization," she said.

"I believe the best way to address these problems is through a human rights based approach."


International financier George Soros said the protesters should rather pressure their governments to provide more funding to a reformed World Bank and the IMF, because otherwise the poor countries would only be left to themselves.

Ann Pettifor, activist at the Jubilee 2000 group campaigning for debt relief for poor countries, said the Group of Seven rich nations were the proper target rather than the "civil servants" at the bank and the IMF.

"We must not go for the soft targets, but for the hard targets which are our Finance Ministers and leaders."

"If you (the IMF and World Bank) carry on being the defenders of the G7, standing up in front while the G7 are shadowy figures behind you... then you will continue to be attacked in the way you will be attacked this week."

Prague Castle may have been lively, but the streets of Prague itself have so far been quiet, with protests muted, and few signs yet of the masses of demonstrators who have pledged to blockade the meeting venue on Tuesday, the official opening day of the IMF gathering.

Indeed, the thousands of police thronging the streets in anticipation of violent demonstrations have led to a 33 percent drop in overall crime in the last week, national police spokesman Jiri Suttner said.

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