Deaf Ears

No thanks, World Bank says to a critical study

by Chris Strohm

In These Times, June 2002


A global network of nongovemmental groups says the executive leadership of the World Bank has downplayed and dismissed a new report that is heavily critical of structural adjustment programs- and the bank now appears to be trying to bury the findings for good.

The Structural Adjustment Participatory Review International Network (SAPRIN), a network of more than a thousand civil society organizations, spent about four years conducting a joint initiative with the World Bank and the governments of several countries to study the impact of structural adjustment programs, delivering the final, 200-page study to Washington in April. But Stephanie Weinberg, a member of the SAPRIN global secretariat, says bank

leaders started to dispute the report as soon as critical findings began to surface. She says the bank has not offered any concrete ways in which the findings will be reviewed or incorporated into changing macroeconomic policy, which also violates an original agreement.

The report, titled "The Policy Roots of Economic Crisis and Poverty," concludes that structural adjustment measures have significantly increased poverty, inequality and social exclusion in the 10 countries studied (Bangladesh, Ecuador, Hungary, Mexico and Ghana among them). The study found that such programs lead to a loss of domestic productive capacity and jobs; a reduction in small farm agriculture, which leads to a loss of food security; diminishing real wages, workers rights and job security; and reduced access to affordable, quality services.

In an interview during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in early February, Weinberg and other members of SAPRIN said the bank even tried to stop funding for the study as it was being done by blocking funds from European governments. "At the global level we encountered obstacles basically throughout the entire process," Weinberg says.

In May, Weinberg said that though bank officials at the local level remained helpful and committed to the study, the bank's top leadership pressured SAPRIN to conclude the report prematurely before unilaterally declaring the study over in July 2001.

Susana Cruickshank, a member of the global SAPRIN steering committee from Mexico, said the bank began to withdraw support for the study the more it investigated the effects of structural adjustment. "When [the bank] started seeing that we were really taking seriously the [idea of criticizing the old model and the old rationale of structural adjustment," she said, "this is where the World Bank started cutting off its commitments with us."

Ironically, the initiative was started with World Bank President James Wolfensohn's help after the bank challenged NGOs to review structural adjustment programs. According to the original agreement, the bank agreed to consider the findings of the initiative in making "concrete changes in macroeconomic policy" and to "identify practical and necessary changes in economic policies that will improve the lives of common people."

The bank's senior leadership had also originally agreed to hold a high-profile, public forum with SAPRIN to discuss the study once it was completed. Wolfensohn met with SAPRIN representatives for 20 minutes when the report was released in April, but Weinberg says the bank has "aggressively avoided" such a forum. The bank did recently request a longer meeting, Weinberg says, but only after the story was featured in European media.

Unsurprisingly, bank officials deny these charges. Coralie Gevers, an economist who worked on the report, says the findings are being distributed internally for review at the highest levels of the bank. "If we send back comments saying we don't agree with the findings of the report, that doesn't mean we are withdrawing from it."

She says the bank is planning to hold a meeting in July with SAPRIN representatives to discuss the findings in detail. SAPRIN isn't expecting much, however. "No one in the civil society network has any great illusions about the willingness of the bank to change," Weinberg says. "And it's more clear than ever that change is only going to happen by pressure on many different fronts.

International Monetary Fund (IMF) & World Bank

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