Seattle, the Sequel

Lords of the global economy vs. grassroots dissidents, round two: Thousands of protesters are heading for Washington, DC to disrupt a meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

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Emboldened by their success at turning the World Trade Organization meetings into a fin de siecle political and economic Woodstock, many of the same radical troopers from Seattle are gearing up for a repeat performance — dubbed “A16” — next month in Washington, DC.

Activists plan to swarm the streets during the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund April 16 and April 17. The two international institutions, organizers argue, perpetuate global economic inequality, cheat workers, and despoil the environment. Meanwhile, in a curious concord between power brokers and street radicals, congressional leaders are also excoriating the Bank and the IMF.

“Seattle was the Big Bang of activism on the global economy,” says Juliette Beck, a bespectacled organizer with San Francisco-based Global Exchange. Her cluttered Mission Street office — equal parts kindergarten classroom and Frieda Kahlo painting — is headquarters for the Northern California activist scene. “Now people are putting the pieces together,” she says. “They are asking about these institutions that write the rules of the global economy, operate in stealth, and have enormous influence.”

Before the closed door-meetings kick off on April 16, organizers expect a jam-packed week of protests and education. Some crusaders for international debt relief will stage a massive gathering on the National Mall, and others plan to march from the White House to the IMF’s headquarters. As many as 1,200 people will cram into a Dupont Circle church to hear lecturers including venerable consumer advocate Ralph Nader. “Direct action” groups like Berkeley, Calif.’s Ruckus Society will serve up familiar antics from street theater and puppet shows to blockades and eye-grabbing banners.

“People who didn’t go to Seattle are now ready to put their bodies on the line,” says Jill Dreier of the Denver-based Direct Action Network.

The World Bank and IMF were created in 1944 to promote international economic development and stability. The Bank was intended to provide long-term loans, and the IMF to provide emergency bail-outs to countries in dire straits. Their funds come from private investors and member governments; the US holds the largest single stakes in both. But the institutions have not only failed to meet their goals, critics charge, but also foster policies that threaten the environment, abet human rights violations, and forcibly uproot indigenous people who live in the way of dams, power projects, and other so-called engines of progress.

All of which has energized activists coast-to coast. Crash courses in civil disobedience have cropped up nationwide. At a recent Berkeley session, a gaggle of scraggly kids practiced locking arms while others posed as baton-wielding cops. In other drills, a white-bearded old man braved a hostile police interrogation, and a young redhead adroitly played a sensationalist journalist looking to turn A16 into hot copy at the protesters’ expense.

While taking an oath of non-violence, some organizers hesitate to condemn the $2.5 million in property damage that captured headlines in Seattle. “We’re not going to question whether people prefer holding hands or smashing windows,” says Nadine Bloch, an organizer with the Direct Action Network. “We want to focus on the violence of these institutions.”

The prospect of a Seattle Redux, however, is uncertain. Few predict the total number of protesters to equal the 50,000 that turned out at the WTO meetings. And organizers agree that DC police officers will handle crowds better than their counterparts in the Pacific Northwest, avoiding the tear-gas and violence that captured national attention.

“Obviously we will permit people to exercise their First Amendment rights,” says Lt. Dan Nichols, spokesman for the US Capitol Police. “But we will not tolerate any unlawful activity,”

There is some concern that the April meetings themselves lack the gravitas that inspired the WTO protests. The line-up in Washington will not feature as many bureaucratic heavy-hitters as Seattle, where the WTO planned a landmark round of trade negotiations. The World Bank’s decision-making Board of Governors will not even convene until its annual meetings in September.

“The IMF and World Bank are not really deciding anything more significant than letterhead,” says Mike Dolan, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

While IMF and World Bank critics focus on April 16, labor unions — which played a pivotal role in crippling the WTO conference and in lending mainstream legitimacy to the protests — are gearing up for April 12. On that day, Dolan hopes to see 15,000 union workers turn out to protest US trade policy with China. As in Seattle, unions fret that President Clinton’s goal of granting permanent trade status to China, which would foreshadow China’s admittance into the WTO, would deal a crushing blow to workers’ — not to mention human — rights.

For their part, environmentalists continue to complain that World Bank loans support projects that ravage forests, rivers and wildlife. Friends of the Earth has urged the Bank to halt its projects in “pristine areas” of Western Africa and Latin America. Critics such as 50 Years is Enough take issue with “structural adjustment programs,” bureaucratic-speak for the policy strings attached to IMF and World Bank loans. In return for borrowing, countries must open up their markets and natural resources to global investors. Such measures, critics charge, wreak havoc on the environment, upend local economies, and force governments to slash social spending to balance budgets and tamp down current account imbalances.

Consider logging, an industry the IMF encourages many forest-rich Latin American and African countries to expand as part of their “structural adjustment” programs. Cameroon’s lumber exports, for example, shot up by nearly 50 percent between 1995 and 1997. While this may help boost local economies in the short run, critics fear it will lead to deforestation and soil erosion. Moreover, IMF-inspired changes in both timber and agriculture policy have redounded to the benefit of agribusiness and large growers, instead of poor farmers and other indigent residents.

Monitoring IMF aid to Tanzania, Ross Hammond found that the country’s “better off” saw their incomes from agriculture rise by 279 percent, while the “poor” and “very poor” watched theirs plummet by 42 and 60 percent respectively between 1983 and 1991.

Corporate welfare is raw meat for other watchdog groups. A proposed 650-mile oil pipeline would run from landlocked Chad to Cameroon and deposit the oil at the Gulf of Guinea. The proposed $3.5 billion project, which would be partially financed by the World Bank, would help line the pockets of multinational corporations like Exxon. A range of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) warns that the pipeline will damage forests and pollute rivers, and that the funds generated will only benefit the local economic elite. Ranked dead last on Transparency International‘s corruption perception index, Cameroon itself seems a dubious business partner.

“We are definitely listening to the concerns of local community groups and NGOs, and want to build in environmental and revenue management safeguards,” says World Bank spokesperson Merrell Tuck. “But we’re also concerned about the people of Chad and Cameron, and bringing them out of desperate poverty.”

Jubilee 2000 will hold a rally on April 9 calling for debt cancellation for the world’s poorest countries, whose economies are staggering under the weight of billions of dollars in loans. World Bank president James Wolfenson has publicly dismissed such ideas as “whimsical.” Speaking recently at a US Senate hearing, Wolfenson said: “If you have a society based on debt forgiveness, who is going to invest in debt anymore?”

The Bank has in fact released or committed to release over $3 billion of outstanding debt to its most impoverished clients, Tuck points out. “But because countries need to maintain their credit ratings, it’s not realistic to ask for a blanket forgiveness of debt,” she adds.

Sympathy for debt forgiveness, however, may be brewing inside an unlikely seat of wisdom: the Beltway. A blue-ribbon commission of economists recently recommended to Congress that the IMF and World Bank forgive the crushing obligations of the world’s most indebted countries. The report also concluded that the World Bank and the IMF needlessly encroach on each other’s turf. The IMF should stop giving long-term assistance to countries in sub-Saharan Africa and post-Communist nations, the report concluded. For its part, the report added, the World Bank should target its efforts the world’s 80 poorest nations and cease lending to countries such as China, Russia, and Indonesia, which have ample access to private markets.

The World Bank remains skeptical. “You’d be hard pressed to find a private-sector group that would fund basic education, health clinics for AIDS, and vaccinating children,” says Tuck.

Democrats remain sharply critical of the report, penned by the International Financial Institution Advisory Commission, which was created in 1998 when Congress authorized $18 billion for the IMF. Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., has branded the report a “slash and burn approach” to the task of reforming the Bank and the Fund. But Republican leaders are more enthusiastic. “My great frustration with the World Bank and the IMF … is that I don’t believe they work very well,” Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., told reporters.

Without huge turnout or clashes with the police, the A16 protests may not get much more attention than the 1,500 protesters chanting and waving banners about “Frankenflakes” in late March at a biotechnology conference in Boston. But if the activists do get their message across, it will establish the events in Seattle not as a fluke but as a watershed moment.

For some, A16 will be spring training for the main event: disrupting the Democratic and Republican national conventions in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. For others planning a full descent on Prague, where the World Bank and IMF meet in September, it is a dress rehearsal.

Prague has both symbolic and ironic currency. In 1968, Czechoslovak Communist leader Alexander Dubcek campaigned for “socialism with a human face.” Not afraid to do some heavy lifting, World Bank president James Wolfenson has called for “globalization with a human face.” But critics argue that any way you slice it — to paraphrase former New York Gov. Al Smith — it’s still globaloney.


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