The Poor’s Most Deadly Enemy

The World Bank helps First World countries seize Third World resources

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 13th April 2000

The impoverished people of Zambia may have noticed a certain discrepancy between what the World Bank says and what it does. The state, the bank’s officials insist, must reduce its spending, and Zambia’s people must pay for health and education out of their own pockets. Yet the same officials, as well as enjoying some of the most lavish public sector salaries on earth and generous “relocation allowances”, have free use of the best hospitals and the best schools: the taxpayer meets their private health and education costs.

As the researcher Mark Lynas has shown, the World Bank’s “reforms” are directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Zambian people. Most cannot afford to buy their own medicines, so they die of easily treatable diseases. Partly as a result, infant mortality in Zambia has risen by 25 per cent since 1980, while life expectancy has fallen from 54 to 40. The cuts have forced Zambia’s Siavonga Hospital to merge its obstetrics and tuberculosis wards, with predictable results. The government has also been forced to slash its spending on education, from £40 per primary school pupil in 1991 to £10. Enrolment has fallen from 96 per cent in the mid-1980s to 77 percent today.

On Sunday, thousands of people will converge in Washington to protest against the World Bank’s policies. There will be plenty to keep them busy. For the World Bank is not, as it pretends to be, the saviour of the world’s poor, but their most deadly enemy.

Every one of the bank’s policies is beset by contradictions. It claims, for example, to be the champion of free choice, yet its prescriptions are resolutely Maoist. It promulgates precisely the same approach to development everywhere on earth, regardless of circumstance. It rules not by science but by slogan: the great leap forward will be achieved by means of “comparative advantage”, “privatisation” and “trade liberalisation”. It keeps pursuing its crazy schemes even in the face of repeated failure: the bank is still funding hydroelectric dams all over the developing world, for example, despite scores of social and environmental catastrophes.

The World Bank assures us that it is now the champion of female education, having launched a handful of high profile schemes to provide schooling for girls. But every year its “structural adjustment” policies force millions out of school. Like the International Monetary Fund, it uses third world debt to extract concessions from developing countries, obliging them to cut their spending and hand the public sector to foreign corporations. As schooling throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa is now available only to those who can pay, the girls are dumped.

The bank claims to be fighting corruption. Yet it is one of the most corrupt and corrupting institutions on earth. It lent Indonesia’s President Suharto a total of $25billion, much of which was stolen. Bank staff knew this was happening and colluded in the theft, covering up for the government in order to save face. In Washington the World Bank is enmeshed in a sticky web of crony contracting, as large US companies lean on their government to persuade the bank to give them work. Last month, it demonstrated that it had picked up a few tips from the corrupt regimes with which it cheerfully does business, by appointing as its chief economist the brother of one of its vice-presidents.

About once a year, the World Bank admits that it has erred, and promises that it has learnt from its mistakes. And every year it immediately repeats them. When the massive migration schemes it funded in Indonesia and Brazil led, predictably enough, to the displacement and murder of indigenous people, the bank acknowledged that it shouldn’t have provided the money. Today, however, it is investing in an almost identical scheme in western China. In 1991, it conceded that its forestry programmes were a disaster, and claimed to have changed its approach. Two months ago the bank admitted that the new policy is just as bad as the old one.

It’s not hard to see why the World Bank is destined to sow destruction wherever it goes. The “disciplines” it imposes are not, as it claims, market disciplines, but political disciplines. It has just one true mandate: to engineer a neoliberal world order so that first world countries can seize third world resources. It will stop at nothing to achieve this end. It helped, for example, to arrange both the 1998 re-election of Brazil’s President Cardoso and the collapse, in 1999, of the Brazilian currency. It handed the first world a tame neoliberal regime, in other words, whose assets became available at bargain basement prices to foreign corporations.

The World Bank has become the means whereby the rich are empowered to steal the incomes of the poor. It claims to be defending the world from disasters. In truth its purpose is to promote them.