World Bank Concerns Overshadowed by Terrorism, Iraq

WASHINGTON, DC, April 26, 2004 (ENS) - Progress towards meeting the UN Millenium Development Goals is uneven, with some developing countries striding forward but others sliding back, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund heard at their 60th anniversary spring meeting over the weekend in Washington.

But the issues most important to the Group, which World Bank President James Wolfensohn defined as "the question of poverty and the question of equity," are being pushed to the background now that the media are "preeminently concerned with issues of terrorism, Iraq, growth, jobs, in domestic countries' elections, and budget deficits," he said.


World Bank President James Wolfensohn explains to the media on Sunday how the world's focus has shifted away from concern about poverty since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2004. (Photo courtesy World Bank)
The proportion of people living in extreme poverty - less than $1 a day - in developing countries dropped by almost half between 1981 and 2001, from 40 to 21 percent of global population, according to World Bank figures released Friday. But while rapid economic growth in East and South Asia has pulled over 500 million people out of poverty in those two regions alone, the proportion of poor has grown, or fallen only slightly, in many countries in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

When 189 member states of the United Nations adopted the Millennium Declaration in September 2000, they looked back to 1990 and ahead to 2015 and gave themselves 25 years to produce improvements in peoples' lives.

A primary environmental Millenium goal is to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is Finance Minister, Nigeria, and Chair of the World Bank Development Committee. (Photo courtesy World Bank)
Another is to integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources.

The goals outlined in the Declaration form the target for World Bank Group activities, but Wolfensohn said "when you look at education and health and environment and other individual objectives, in most of those, it is fairly clear that the objectives will not be reached."

The Global Monitoring Report issued by the Group on Friday shows that "there has been some progress, that there is a reasonable chance by 2015 that we will achieve the global goal of halving poverty," Wolfensohn said, citing "remarkable progress in China and India."

But the report points out that Africa, which has always been the most difficult area, Wolfensohn said, is falling back even on the poverty goals, despite the fact that 14 or 15 countries are having growth of over four percent.

"There has been a pickup in investment in Africa, but again, if you dig into that," said Wolfensohn, it's in a few countries, and it is significantly in natural resource investments."


The current crisis in Darfur, western Sudan is threatening to become a major humanitarian catastrophe, says the UN's World Food Programme, which has launched an urgent appeal to the international community for US$98 million to feed 1.2 million victims of conflict. (Photo courtesy WFP)
Martin Ravallion, manager of the Bank's poverty research program, said, "To increase the security of poor people, national poverty reduction strategies must support their immediate consumption needs and protect their assets by ensuring access to basic services, including health, education and nutrition."

On Thursday, Earth Day, the World Bank called for "speeding up global action to fight diseases caused by outdoor and indoor air pollution, and unsafe water." Tnese conditions are affecting the health and lives of millions of children in poor and middle-income countries, the Bank said.

“Adults and children are dying because of environmental pollution and unsafe water,” saai Ian Johnson, World Bank vice president for sustainable development. “This is a global problem that the international community urgently needs to put an end to, because children’s lives depend on it.”

Every year in developing countries, an estimated three million people die prematurely from water-related diseases, and two million people die from exposure to stove smoke inside their homes.

It is the infants, young children and women from poor rural families who lack access to safe water, sanitation, and modern household fuels that bear the brunt of the largest portion of deaths.

According to the World Bank’s Environment Strategy, over one million people die annually from malaria, most in the poorest parts of Africa. Another million people die from urban air pollution, and, of the urban populations, there is reason to believe that it is the poor who suffer the most, the Bank reports.

“Progress is happening, but it is still too slow,” said Johnson. “Solutions require coordination across different sectors, including the need for changing behaviors on the ground. Better infrastructure and energy services for households and communities are needed for mitigating the most daunting environmental risks to health.”

A recent environmental public opinion survey conducted by Globe-Scan in 20 countries concluded that, “Environmental concerns in poor and middle income countries are clearly linked to personal perceived risks and basic needs, while in wealthy countries people are beginning to put nature issues ahead of their historical pollution concerns.”


Demonstrators against the privatization of water march in the parade against World Bank and IMF policies. (Photo courtesy
On the Washington streets, protesters staged a peaceful demonstration against World Bank policies, a smaller and much less violent protest than in the recent past. Police said about 1,000 demonstrators showed up, but organizers Mobilization for Global Justice (MGJ) put their number at about 3,000.

Shouting chants, banging on pots pans and drums, demonstrators paraded along 15 blocks to show their opposition to structural adjustment loan conditions such as forced privatization of public resources, mass layoffs, cuts in health and education, and high interest rates.

”Opposition to the policies of the IMF and World Bank goes hand in hand with the growing opposition to the antidemocratic, secretive, corporate-dominated international trade agreements,” said MGJ organizer Herb Ettel. “From Seattle, to Cancun to Miami, impoverished and working people are organizing to fight for their communities, decent jobs, human rights and the environment.”

MJG organizer Robert Weissman said the protest crowd this year is smaller because the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed the focus of American politics. Everyday working people, the media and the protesters look to a different set of issues," he said.

The protesters want World Bank meetings opened to the public and the media, and all the debts of impoverished countries to the World Bank and IMF cancelled.

They demand a stop to all World Bank and IMF policies that "hinder people's access to food, clean water, shelter, health care, education, and right to organize. These policies include user fees, privatization, and economic austerity programs in countries that receive World Bank Group loans.

Stop all World Bank support for socially and environmentally destructive projects such as oil, gas, and mining activities, the protesters demand, and all support for projects such as dams that include forced relocation of people.

“These institutions function as loan sharks, offering desperately indebted countries loans that just add to their debt burden,” said Morrigan Phillips, a staff member of Jubilee USA Network and MGJ. “Most of these debts are illegitimate – loans to dictators or for failed projects. These lending institutions can and should cancel the debt now.”


Vegetable seller in the market at Dakar, Senegal. (Photo courtesy FAO)
There is some movement towards debt relief at the World Bank Group. The Group supports US$850 million in debt service relief for Senegal. With democratically elected presidents since 1983 and a smooth transition of power after the 2000 presidential election, Senegal is politically stable, and has put a stable economic system in place, the World Bank and IMF said in a statement of support.

The Bank's annual statistical report, World Development Indicators 2004, released Friday, shows a drop in the absolute number of people living on less than $1 a day in all developing countries from 1.5 billion in 1981, to 1.1 billion in 2001, with much of the progress occurring in the 1980s.

Between 1990 and 2001, the global decline in the number of extremely poor people slowed somewhat, falling by about 120 million - from 1.2 billion to 1.1 billion people - while the proportion of poor people dropped from 28 percent to 21 percent of the total population.

"Economic growth in China and India has delivered a dramatic reduction in the number of poor," said François Bourguignon, the Bank's chief economist. "But other regions have not enjoyed sustained growth and, in too many cases, the number of poor has actually increased."

"Although we are likely to reach the first Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by half worldwide by 2015, Bourguigon said, "much more aid, much more openness to trade, and more widespread policy reforms are needed to achieve all the Millenium Development Goals in all countries."

In addition to liberalization of trade by both rich and developing countries, increased aid flows, especially to the poorest countries, are needed to eradicate extreme poverty and achieve the Millenium Deelopment Goals, the Bank said in its report.

Net aid flowing to developing and transition countries reached $70 billion in 2002, up from $54 billion in 1997, the report states.

More than a quarter of these flows went to Sub-Saharan Africa, where they represent 32 percent of that region's gross capital formation. But middle-income countries, including China, Serbia and Montenegro, West Bank and Gaza, and Pakistan, received about half of total net aid.