Protest Turns Violent at Prague World Bank-IMF Meeting

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, September 26, 2000 (ENS) - The annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group sparked violence Tuesday as Czech police responded with tear gas and water cannon to demonstrators' attempts to disrupt the meetings inside the Prague Congress Center.

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World Bank Group president James Wolfensohn (Photo courtesy Microcredit Summit)
Inside, World Bank Group president James Wolfensohn's calls for mutual respect, social consensus and equal participation in the fight against global poverty did not placate thousands gathered outside. Yet to listen to his opening address to the three day annual meeting, Wolfensohn could have been mistaken for a protester.

"Something is wrong when the richest 20 percent of the global population receive more than 80 percent of the global income," Wolfensohn told the world's finance and development ministers. "Something is wrong when 10 percent of a population receives half the national income - as happens in far too many countries today."

Wolfensohn called for global action to fight environmental degradation, including new lending instruments. "We must explore innovative instruments, including grants, for such pressing issues as AIDS, the environment, basic education and health," he told the annual meeting.

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Prague police close off access to conference center (Three photos courtesy Indymedia.org)
Outside, dozens were injured as demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police and tried to shut down access to the congress center. At least 500 people arrested this morning in front of the conference center.

More arrests followed when small groups of demonstrators managed to reach the Metro station next to the conference center and the hotel where most delegates are staying.

The protesters represent a multitude of groups and causes. They are united by anger at what they see as the economic injustices caused by corporate driven globilization. Communities are displaced and the environment ruined by numerous World Bank projects in Third World nations that allow corporations to reap huge benefits, say demonstrators.

In the words of one of the groups protesting in Prague, the North Carolina based Direct Action Network, "the World Bank continues to push export economies and international competitiveness, while sucking money away from social services - or else, no loan."

The group attacks the IMF for its lending policies to poor countries. "In 54 percent of countries borrowing funds from the World Bank, the people experienced stagnating per capita income, rising poverty, declining life expectancy, or a combination of all of the above. Rather than working to reduce poverty, as the IMF and World Bank pledge to do, these institutions are contributing to it, in the name of the free market economy."

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Demonstrators surround Prague Congress Center
Direct Action Network and many other groups are represented in Prague by an international ad-hoc coalition called the Initiative Against Economic Globalization (INPEG). INPEG is dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience.

Prague is the latest flash point in 10 months of protests that began with anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle last November. The protests are a far cry from the first annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank Group in Washington, DC. in 1946.

At that time, the ministers of finance and governors of central banks of the 44 founding member countries of the two organizations were focused on completing the new post-war "stability architecture" of the international monetary system.

Prague is be the 20th city to be chosen for a World Bank and IMF joint annual meeting. More than 15,000 delegates have come for three days of talks, seminars and workshops. In his opening address, Wolfensohn called on the international community to put equity and participation at the heart of development.

"Our challenge is to make globalization an instrument of opportunity and inclusion - not of fear and insecurity," said Wolfensohn.

Wolfensohn called on high income countries to increase their development aid, provide deeper debt relief, and dismantle trade barriers to poor countries.

"Our estimates indicate that the annual costs of all trade barriers by industrial countries are more than double total development assistance."

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Czech police arrest demonstrators near the conference center.
Wolfensohn argued that participation by the poor must be at the center of the search for equity. "Participation delivers powerful results at the project and program level. And it can create the social consensus that is the foundation for social change and reform. It is part of freedom.

"If we are serious about fighting inequity, we must also help poor people build their assets, including education health and land. We must confront deep seated inequalities, bridging gender, ethnic, social and racial divides. We must protect people from crop failures and natural disasters, from crime and conflict, from sickness and unemployment."

Addressing those protesting outside the meeting, Wolfensohn said, "I believe deeply that many of them are asking legitimate questions, and I embrace the commitment of a new generation to fight poverty.

"I share their passion and their questioning. Yes, we all have a lot to learn. But I believe we can move forward only if we deal with each other constructively and with mutual respect."