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World Versus Bank: The Return of the World Bank and the People’s Resistance

Farmers’ groups and peasant movements in developing countries, and think tanks and activist groups globally, are uniting behind a new resurgence against the World Bank.

World Bank headquarters during 2012 IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington DC, April 16, 2012. (Photo: Deborah Campos / World Bank)

If one was to do some superficial digging on the World Bank, you may get the impression that the Bank is a pure “development” organization, working exclusively in the interest of the public to reduce poverty and inequality. Indeed, the Bank’s tagline is, “A world without poverty.” But dig just a little deeper and the contours of a deep and extreme ideology become apparent. The World Bank reveals itself not as an altruistic benefactor of the world’s poor so much as a link in the chain between Wall Street and the global south – a link the primary purpose of which is to facilitate profit for elite interests, through a long established pattern of wealth extraction.

The World Bank is very well funded and vastly powerful. With money it makes trading on Wall Street and through donations from rich country governments, it distributes about $30 billion each year, mostly in loans, to less rich countries, ostensibly to promote economic development. But it has a pretty checkered history, and one that has attracted legions of critics over the years, including a broad range of economists, governments and large NGOs, but most persistently grassroots and community groups whose lives it directly affects. And now, after a decade or so of relative calm during which the Bank seemed to get some measure of control back over its public image, criticism is again mounting.

It’s a criticism that runs deep, to the very core of the Bank’s purpose and guiding ideology, and it is being voiced all over the world, from the farmlands and cities of India, Latin America and Africa to the doorstep of the Bank’s headquarters in Washington, DC.

Doing Business

Right now, at the center of the controversy are the Bank’s Doing Business (DB) rankings. These come in the form of an annual report that ranks 189 countries according to how “business friendly” Bank officials think they are. In recent years, these rankings have assumed the position of a flagship program, that, in the Bank’s own estimation have, “served as an incomparable catalyst for business reforms initiatives.” They work on two fronts: First, they tell investment-hungry governments what a World Bank endorsed “business friendly environment” looks like, thereby setting the parameters of what form economic development must take. Secondly, and the reason governments pay attention, is that they then influence the flow of massive amounts of capital, from private and corporate investments to foreign aid to the Bank’s own enormous portfolio.

This is where the Bank’s extreme ideology comes in. Because it believes that absolutely all economic activity is positive, regardless of whom it benefits (a classic feature of a neoliberal “trickle down economics” belief system), and that being connected to mammoth global – therefore inevitably corporate – supply chains is the silver bullet for developing countries, their focus is on making legal and regulatory environments friendly to multinational business – particularly large monoculture agribusinesses. And as mounting evidence shows, far from stimulating equitable development, this “one size fits all” approach results in the enrichment of elites – both local and global – at the expense of small farms and business, particularly the family farms that currently feed 80 percent of the global south. There are any number of examples, from Guatemala to Sierra Leone to the Philippines, where the sort of “reforms” the Doing Business rankings promote have acted as a catalyst for massive industrial land grabs and the dispossession and forced eviction of countless small-scale farmers.

Most recently, at the behest of the G8, the Bank was asked to “develop options for generating a Doing Business in Agriculture index” which resulted in a new methodology of its Doing Business indicator to include the new Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA) project in 2013. As the Bank puts it, the BBA was designed to help “policy makers strengthen agribusiness globally, enabling the farm sector to participate more fully in the market,” and BBA feeds a growing trend of applying a “business-friendly” logic to agriculture.

Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics recently summed up the Bank’s rankings by stating:

There is no recognition that some regulations might actually be important to a fair society . . . it quickly becomes clear that the Doing Business indicators are not actually against regulations as such; they are only against regulations that don’t directly promote corporate interests. Regulations that protect workers and indigenous communities are considered bad. But regulations that protect creditors and investors – and empower them to grab land and avoid taxes – are considered good.

The People’s Resistance

Since there are no meaningful, official ways for local populations to stand up to this neoliberal onslaught, many are coming up with their own. Right now, over 200 social movements and civil society organizations have come together under a campaign called Our Land Our Business. This group is eclectic and comprises farmers groups and peasant movements in developing countries, and think tanks and activist groups globally. They are demanding an end to the Doing Business rankings and the new BBA project. These demands are consistent with the demands of those who have long questioned the Bank’s basic legitimacy. What started out as a critique of one policy initiative and its impact, particularly on agricultural practices, is blossoming into a far larger movement that has recognized how the Doing Business rankings are an articulation of the Bank’s whole approach to development: i.e. undemocratic, extractive, pro-corporate, anti-poor and deeply technocratic.

The first public moment in this new rising is a 12-city simultaneous, creative resistance happening in front of World Bank offices around the world on October 10 – from Dhaka to Washington, DC – under the banner #WorldvsBank. Rather than standard angry-toned street protests, the idea is to capture the creative spirit and joy of the resistance movement through spoken word, musical performances and theater. For example, in DC where the bank will be holding its annual board meeting, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping will be performing an evangelical eulogy for the Bank. The DC event is drawing support from Occupy groups from New York to DC to Oakland, as well as /The Rules, Veterans for Peace and Popular Resistance.

The campaign is also launching the world’s first transnational “missed call” campaign. This is a tactic that has been used in India by Ana Hazare in his anti-corruption campaign in 2011 and by Kenyans for Tax Justice to stop an anti-poor tax in 2013. This will be the first time this mechanism is being used as a uniting call-to-action across multiple countries. The idea is that you make a call to a local phone number; your mobile number is then registered as an expression of support but the call is not answered so that there are no costs to the user. In those parts of the world where first generation mobile phones are ubiquitous, but computers and the internet are costly and inaccessible, this is a powerful tool for mass engagement in political action.

Finally, to coincide with the October 10 events, the Oakland Institute – one of the world’s leading think tanks on land rights – is releasing a new study tackling the Bank’s approach to land, agriculture and development, following up from their landmark research on the effects of the Doing Business rankings entitled “Willful Blindness: How the World Bank’s Country Rankings Impoverish Small Holder Farmers.”

As the organs of the neoliberal wealth extraction machine get more sophisticated and subversive, the world’s social movements are adapting their responses. They are taking various forms, from occupying public space to synchronized marches in the street. They are removing the veils of rhetoric, experimenting with new tools for organizing and building power to counteract the deadening forces of corporate globalization.

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