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MIT Activists Travel to DC, Protest IMF

By Sanjay Basu


A contingent of MIT student activists will join several thousand protesters this weekend in Washington D.C. to oppose the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB).

The IMF and WB, whose meetings will take place in buildings throughout Washington this week, are sister organizations to the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose conference in Seattle last November was shut down by large-scale protests.

Today, at least 15 MIT students will join 43 Boston University student activists and a band of Boston citizens riding four buses to the D.C. protest. There they will meet several thousand college students and others representing such groups as the Teamsters and environmental concerns to initiate teach-ins and demonstrations on Friday and Saturday.

Both the IMF and the WB were created at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 with the stated intention of restructuring and improving developing nations.

Both organizations have claimed at recent press conferences that they support “free-trade and development” policies using what has been called “neoliberal economics” to bring wealth to countries. Nevertheless, protesters assert that programs instituted by the two groups are “austerity measures” that open markets to sweatshop labor, reduce national spending on social programs such as health and education, and devalue the national currency.

Anticipating that the debate over economic policies will result in violence, the IMF and WB have called upon D.C. police to secure their buildings against protesters. National Guard troops are also expected to arrive by Sunday. Administrators at George Washington University, located in the heart of D.C., have closed the school until Monday.

Activists share goals, qualms

The MIT activists who will attend the protest have stated their expectations for the event while identifying their fears.

“There will be thousands of people weighing in their feelings about the role these institutions have played in creating poverty throughout the world,” said Aimee Smith G, who will be attending the protest.

Smith explained her reasons for protesting: “Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) do nothing to enable sustained economic growth ... There is no limit on the levels of starvation or suffering a nation’s people may be put through,” she said.

“Had it not been for this re-colonization in the name of ‘development’ by the IMF and the WB, people in so-called third world nations would have better options. The amazing thing is that these institutions which have so routinely failed at their stated motives have been allowed to continue unchallenged.”

Treasury Secretary Laurence Summers ’75 disagreed, telling Associated Press reporters Tuesday that the IMF’s recent decision to establish an independent watchdog group shows its willingness to improve and help poor nations. It “demonstrates important progress in making the IMF a more accountable and transparent institution,” he said.

World Bank Group President James Wolfensohn also defended himself, stating that “the Bank is not what it was five years ago.”

But former World Bank economist and Vice President Joseph Stiglitz, in an article published in The New Republic yesterday, said that the protesters will “say the IMF’s economic ‘remedies’ often make things worse -- turning slowdowns into recessions and recessions into depressions. And they’ll have a point.”

“I saw how the IMF, in tandem with the U.S. Treasury Department, responded [to economic crises],” he said. “And I was appalled.”

Fellow student activist Saurabh Asthana G agreed and offered his predictions for the outcome of the protest.

“I think anyone who takes a moment to examine the effect these institutions, which claim to have been founded on the principle of eradicating third-world poverty, have actually had on developing economies world-wide, will see clearly that they have not at all been effective in achieving their goals,” said Asthana.

“[At the protest], I anticipate heavy national guard presence blocking us off wherever we could do the most good, i.e. around the WB building. The most we can pray to do is shut the city down by virtue of our numbers ... but I think, at this point, stopping the meetings is out of the question.”

Protest’s effects not guaranteed

Asthana had a less optimistic attitude toward the protest than most of his colleagues. “Honestly, given the fact that Seattle happened, and those in power are now aware of the size of the movement against them, and are forewarned against the D.C. demonstration, I don’t expect the protesters to be able to do much other than show their presence,” he said.

Smith said she fears police violence, which resulted in several lawsuits and controversies after the Seattle protest.

“I am terrified of being brutalized by police or incarcerated,” she said. “I am terrified of experiencing things which may make me feel I have no rights. When you grow up in this country, you feel that no matter how bad things can be, at least here you are free to speak your mind, to peaceably assemble, etc. ... I know it hasn’t been true for many in Seattle and for many throughout the country.”

Only a handful of MIT students attending the IMF/WB protest had participated in the Seattle WTO protest. Most of them, however, had attended a recent “Biodevastation 2000” protest at a March meeting of biotechnology industry leaders at the Hynes Convention Center, Boston. Many of those attending the April 16th protest re-iterated Smith’s qualms about brutality and incarceration, but fellow activist Felix AuYeung G said he had different fears.

“I fear that positive changes are not happening quickly enough,” he said. “As we speak, millions are suffering in poverty and hunger. And while we bicker about if and how the WB and IMF ought to be changed, their regressive policies continue to create irreversible damage to the populations in the developing world, while enriching the very few who have the least moals.” Related stories:

Seattle Struggles to Regain Calm Following WTO Riots December 4, 1999
BioDevastation 2000
Tuesday, March 28, 2000