Editorial: Fifty Years is Enough!


 There is no need for additional studies, reports, task forces, independent commissions of review, country case studies or project investigations.

 The World Bank is a bureaucratic monster, spreading mayhem and misery wherever it directs its attention.

It should be shut down.

 Since its formation 50 years ago, the World Bank has compiled a calamitous record. The Bank has displayed a penchant for megaprojects, a nearly religious faith in technocratic fixes to social and ecological problems, an unflappable commitment to centralized control over both specific development projects and broader development plans and a zeal for secrecy. Concomitantly, it has evidenced a disdain for local, democratic participation in project planning and control over the development process, a contempt for the poor and marginalized (and particularly for indigenous peoples) whose lives it is supposed to improve, and a phobia of small-scale development projects.

 The result: a seemingly endless list of infamous World Bank-created or -assisted catastrophes. Among the most celebrated: massive relocation ("transmigration") schemes in Indonesia that exacerbate tensions on rainforest ecosystems and impoverish tens of thousands of people; massive hydroelectric dams in India that dislocate hundreds of thousands of the nation's poorest people; and road-building projects in Brazil that speed up forest destruction. And for each of the most famous debacles, there are countless others that have received less international attention.

 The World Bank's entrance into the macroeconomic planning field in the early 1980s opened yet another front of World Bank-induced suffering. In response to the debt crisis it helped create, the World Bank imposed on Third World countries "structural adjustment programs" designed to liberalize their economies, opening them to multinational corporate investment and orienting them to production for export.

 The result: the impoverishment of hundreds of millions, the contraction of many Third World economies and the destruction of the economic base from which Third World countries could hope to build autonomous societies.

 Internal studies confirm that the World Bank's record is horrendous, even on its own terms. A June 1992 World Bank report concluded that less than 20 percent of its structural adjustment technical assistance loans to Africa are substantially effective. And the 1992 Wappenhans report found that Bank staff determined more than one-third of the Bank's 1991 projects to be failures.

On the heels of these and other internal critiques, and celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, the World Bank is now engaged in one of its periodic exercises in public relations-oriented self- criticism.

The World Bank's consistent pattern is to acknowledge the truth of its critics' longstanding complaints (while simultaneously denying that the problems are or were as systemic as critics allege); to make small gestures toward addressing their concerns; and then to simply dismiss all subsequent criticisms as based on the record of the "old" Bank, not the "new and improved" one.

 After being played too many times, however, this cynical song of self-promotion and self- preservation becomes old. It is no longer plausible to deny that the World Bank is rotten at its core.

 The question becomes: what to do?

The Fifty Years Is Enough Campaign, a coalition of environmental and development non- governmental organizations formed to protest the activities of the World Bank, is calling for a series of far-reaching reforms which would make the World Bank less secretive and more accountable, and would force it to undertake fewer and smaller projects and to involve local populations in project development and implementation. Were these reforms to be enacted, the World Bank would be transformed into an entirely new institution.

But the odds of achieving the Campaign's agenda are slim. "Fixing" the World Bank would require it to operate in contravention of powerful multinational corporate interests. It would have to abandon the structural adjustment advocacy which has proved so valuable to global corporations, and to advance a democratic and ecologically sustainable development agenda that would, in the long run, pose a direct threat to multinationals' current prerogatives.

 Prospects for shutting the World Bank down, however, are brighter. Many ideologically- motivated right-wing forces, for reasons generally unrelated to those of environmental and development critics, maintain a deep antipathy to the World Bank. A tacit alliance between the Right and progressive organizations could succeed in depriving the World Bank of the industrialized country funding on which it depends, and in phasing the World Bank out of existence.

While this course of action may cause some transitional difficulties, it would contribute to freeing Third World countries from foreign interference and control, and begin to provide them the space they need to develop more sustainable and self-reliant economies.