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IMF, World Bank Talks Draw Few Protests

JACKI LYDEN, host: The World Bank and the IMF are meeting in Washington this weekend. And in stark contrast to six years ago, few demonstrators have taken to the streets near where the meetings are being held.

NPR's Adam Davidson spoke with opponents of the two institutions to find out why there are so few protests these days.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

Here's a telling sign: the most dramatic moment of protest wasn't on the streets and didn't involve thousands.

MR. PAUL WOLFOWITZ (President, World Bank): (Unintelligible) framework that helps to define governance and to propose tools for monitoring...

DAVIDSON: It was during a sedate -- well, to be honest, boring press conference in a hall at the International Monetary Fund. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz spoke to a couple dozen financial reporters. Suddenly, two women in the audience jumped up and unfurled a banner.

(Soundbite of women chanting)

Unidentified Women: The IMF and the World Bank. Corporate corruption, who can we thank? The IMF and the World Bank...

DAVIDSON: Security guards escorted them out of the building. Another activist, Andriana Natsulis(ph), stayed inside to hand out press releases and answer reporters' questions. A World Bank security guard and an IMF public relations staffer, refusing to give their names, then escorted Natsulis out.

Unidentified Man: Pardon me, pardon me.

Unidentified Woman: You can go outside.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, you're going to have to leave the immediate area right now.

Ms. ANDRIANA NATSULIS (Activist Against World Bank and IMF): You don't have to push me like that...

Unidentified Woman: I'm sorry, but you're exempt. You're...

Ms. NATSULIS: You can be a little gentler though.

Unidentified Woman #1: Actually, no, because you just disrupted our press conference.

Ms. NATSULIS: Yeah, but you physically pushed me.

Unidentified Woman: Excuse me, can you please go?

Ms. NATSULIS: I'm going.

DAVIDSON: Within about two minutes, the whole thing was over.

Mr. WOLFOWITZ: ...the country and the World Bank...

DAVIDSON: Wolfowitz continued his statement without seeming to notice that anything had happened. This small protest was not spontaneous, far from it. These protesters and others started planning last September.

Sameer Dossani, the head of 50 Years is Enough, an anti-World Bank and IMF group, says about 10 or 20 people were at that first meeting.

Mr. SAMEER DOSSANI (Director, 50 Years is Enough): I remember exactly where it was. So this is in the basement of St. Stevens Church, which is, you know, some allies of ours.

DAVIDSON: Most of the activists had been involved in a large anti-Iraq war rally just the week before.

Mr. DOSSANI: So you're a little tired, a little burned out. It's a little bit overwhelming to suddenly think about what to do in April.

DAVIDSON: Dossani says it was at that meeting that they decided not to have massive street demonstrations this year. He also admits that he and other organizers realized that maybe they couldn't have gotten that many people out even if they wanted to. Back in 1999 and 2000, when the protests were big, Dossani had allies among large unions, peace groups and environmentalists. But those groups are now focused on other issues, like the war in Iraq. It leaves only a core group of activists left, who see the World Bank and the IMF as central forces of destruction in the world.

Mr. DOSSANI: So at the moment, we're in a phase of hard imperialism, if you like, where we have nice little, you know, I wouldn't call it totalitarianism, but that's the basic model.

DAVIDSON: Here's Dossani's view. The U.S. controls the world so that large, multinational corporations can get richer, while most of the world is left impoverished. The IMF and the World Bank are the tools that make that possible. Dossani says he doesn't like labels and that he's not an orthodox Marxist. But he and his fellow activists hope to get rid of global capitalism and replace it with something closer to socialism.

These revolutionary goals are, to put it mildly, a departure from those of unions and many environmental groups. In fact, in recent years many mainstream activists have applauded the World Bank and the IMF's response to their concerns, through debt relief, greater transparency and other initiatives.

(Soundbite of protesters)

DAVIDSON: The day after the Wolfowitz press conference, Dossani and about 25 activists perform a protest skit in front of the IMF building. They hold up cardboard cutouts of white men in suits, representing IMF bankers, and chant slogans.

Unidentified Woman #3: (unintelligible) kills people. It drives them to more disease, death. Oh my God! It's so bad.

DAVIDSON: Then other protesters come out. They represent doctors, declaring the IMF bad for the world's health. It's all a bit hard to follow. The protesters are focused on the IMF's initiative to get poor countries to charge their citizens for healthcare. Then everyone joins in a chant.

(Soundbite of protesters chanting)

Protesters: (in unison) World Bank, shut down! IMF, shut down! World Bank, shut down! IMF, shut down!

DAVIDSON: After the rally, Dossani says he thought it went well, but that the issue of healthcare user fees is a bit esoteric. It's an issue not many people understand, let alone want to join a protest over. The next day, Saturday, Dossani and his group held no protests. There was a heavy thunderstorm in DC, but that's not why they stayed away. A dozen or so activists were meeting to plan how to bring down the IMF.

Adam Davidson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Davidson is a contributor to Planet Money, a co-production of NPR and This American Life. He also writes the weekly "It's the Economy" column for the New York Times Magazine.