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From the Streets of Prague

An on-the-ground report from the World Bank/IMF protests of 2000

OneWorld online, September 2000

Signing in to the annual meetings of the IMF and the World Bank this week, delegates were given a 'goody bag' provided by the organisers. It contained, amongst other things, two CDs of Czech classical music, emblazoned with World Bank logos, a calendar (feelgood black and white shots of Charles Bridge and Prague castle; no mentions of structural adjustment), brochures about the Czech Republic, paeans to globalisation penned by Czech president Valcav Havel, and invitations to dinners hosted by multinational corporations.

Also in the bag was a small slip of paper, entitled 'personal safety and security tips'. Advice given to delegates by the Bank and the IMF included 'do not wear your annual meetings badge in public,' 'avoid demonstration sites,' and do not 'display jewelery or wear ostentatious clothing such as furs.' Most interesting of all, though, was one telling line, which seems to have been followed to the letter: 'do not engage in debates with demonstrators.'

This sums up well the vast gulf between the various 'sides' in Prague this week. On the streets were some 20,000 demonstrators, with concerns as diverse as Third World debt, climate change, poverty, indigenous rights, democracy, biodiversity and the democratic process. Convinced of the righteousness of their cause, most wanted the World Bank and the IMF shut down once and for all. Meanwhile, inside the conference centre, ringed by riot police with water cannons and armoured cars, hundreds of delegates, ministers and officials went about their business shaping the next phase of globalisation.

Many, like the World Bank's President James Wolfensohn, also seemed to genuinely believe that the process they were engaged in was the best way to help the poor and protect the global environment. Between the two sides there was virtually no communication. And down in the press room and on the streets were hundreds of journalists, most of whom managed to almost entirely miss the point of what was going on. This lack of communication epitomised what happened in Prague.

On the streets, up to 20,000 people from across Europe and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world, mobilised on Tuesday 26th for a mass day of action to highlight their charges that the Bank and the IMF entrench, rather than relieve, poverty, and that their policies are creating a global hegemony of multinational companies, destroying democracy and degrading the global environment. The protesters were a loose coalition, often united by little but their opposition to the current model of economic globalisation. On the streets you could find anarchists, socialists, communists, indigenous peoples from countries as diverse as India, Kenya and Brazil, debt relief campaigners, development economists, lawyers, a smattering of unwelcome neo-Nazis and a handful of black-hooded rioters intent on destruction - who have since been elevated by the media into the stars of the show.

In fact, the protests were characterised by largely peaceful, if tense, marches and confrontations. It was far more common to see people throwing balloons and flowers at the police than rocks or bottles. Meanwhile, inside the conference centre, delegates and ministerial representatives were confused. James Wolfensohn, the World Bank's president, made conciliatory noises, saying on Tuesday morning that the protesters were "asking legitimate questions" about the role of the World Bank and the IMF in creating or alleviating poverty, and that he well understood their grievances. He also conceded that the Bank and the IMF had "a lot to learn" about poverty alleviation. Horst Koehler, the Managing Director of the IMF, also made it clear that he was "aware of the critical debate about globalisation." Others were less sure what the protests were about. South African finance minister and conference chair Trevor Manuel said of the protesters: "I know what they're against but I have no sense of what they're for."

His view was shared by many delegates, whose reaction to the demonstrations - which for the most part they only saw on television - was characterised by a mixture of fear and dismissiveness. To some extent, this was the protesters' problem. The system they sought to query is so vast and complex that it was difficult to find amongst them much coherent analysis of what can be done about the problems they highlighted. This was compounded by the fact that many of the world's 'blue chip' NGOs - those with global reputations and funding to match - were not on the streets talking to the press, but were inside the conference centre itself, struggling to maintain their place at the table with the Bank and the IMF. It was not uncommon to hear protestors on the streets, suffering the effects of tear gas and baton charges, talking of how such NGOs had 'betrayed' them.

Meanwhile, much of the media reacted to the protests by misrepresenting them. Newspapers and TV reports of 'anarchist riots', 'warzones' and protests 'descending into chaos' were accompanied by stock pictures of black-hooded demonstrators throwing rocks at police through clouds of tear gas. Despite the fact that the violence was localised and perpetrated only by a minority, much of the media treated all the protesters as if they wore black hoods. The Prague-based campaign group which coordinated the protests, Inpeg, was quick to point this out, and to make it clear that the violence was both unrepresentative and unwelcome - but to little avail.

But this media reaction, in some ways, was also a function of the bunker mentality that existed in Prague. Many of the journalists spent most of their time in the basement press room inside the conference centre itself, watching reports of the protests outside live on CNN. As such, they mostly failed in what should have been their role - explaining to the world what the protests were actually about, and the issues behind them. Above them in the conference hall, as the high priests of globalisation pressed on with their project, the media's failure of understanding was not the only one in Prague.