Global Policy Forum

Protest Fears Halt World Bank Talks


By Giles Tremlett

May 21, 2001

Anti-globalization protesters claimed a first major victory over the World Bank yesterday, forcing it to cancel its next big conference in Barcelona, amid worries about a repeat of protests that have marked meetings from Seattle to Prague. The World Bank called off its annual conference on development economics, due to be held in late June, after reviewing the security plans of Spanish police and as campaigners called on protesters to make it their next big event.

At least 3,000 protesters had been due to take to Barcelona's streets as local non-governmental organizations, anarchists, separatists, communists and other groups invited campaigners from around the world to join them.

A World Bank spokeswoman, Caroline Anstey, claimed that demonstrators had planned to turn Barcelona into a battleground with police. That meant, she added, that they had prevented the bank from debating one of the issues closest to their own hearts - ways of tackling poverty. "A conference on reducing poverty needs to take place in an atmosphere that is free from violence, intimidation and harassment," she said.

The decision to cancel the conference came despite Spanish plans to draft in thousands of riot police and to temporarily suspend the free movement of people around Europe's Schengen zone by asking permission to close Spain's borders to protesters. Campaign organizers said the cancellation of the conference was an "unprecedented success" for the movement against capitalist globalization.

More than 200 economists, World Bank officials and academics from around the world had been due to attend. Police had insisted that delegates be grouped together for the sake of security. There had been fears that the conference might attract the attention of two of Europe's bloodiest armed groups -the Basque separatists of ETA and the extreme left-wing Grapo movement. Both have been active in Barcelona over the past year.

The World Bank was clearly angry that its conference would now have to be held over the internet. "In the past people burned books in order to restrict academic freedom," said Ms Anstey. "Now they try to prevent academics from getting to their meeting halls."

The Barcelona meeting had been meant to improve the image of the World Bank, after a series of protests that started at the 1999 joint International Monetary Fund and World Bank conference in Seattle. Those protests spread to meetings of the IMF, World Bank, EU and Summit of the Americas in Washington, Prague, Melbourne, Nice and, last month, Quebec.

As part of the World Bank's efforts to pacify opponents, the Barcelona conference had been due to discuss topics such as "a global economy for all" and "economic regions in the global context". "The subjects due to be debated reflected our concern that globalization should be focused so that poor people could participate in it and benefit from it," explained Nicholas Stern, the World Bank's first vice-president.

But protesters declared the World Bank "non grata" in Barcelona and were pledging "global resistance to global capitalism". "We are expecting a repeat of the mass protests we have seen in Seattle, Melbourne, Prague and Nice," the Rose of Fire group, an anti-World Bank organization, had promised on its website.

Barcelona's mayor, Joan Clos, yesterday expressed surprise that the conference had been cancelled but distanced his Socialist city council from the World Bank. "We have not taken part in the organization of his meeting, nor have we had anything to do with its cancellation," he said.

The invitation to the World Bank came from the Spanish finance minister, Rodrigo Rato. He had been due to speak along with Nobel prize winner James Heckman, Mexico's former president Ernesto Zedillo and the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn.

Protesters said they would still hold their Barcelona meetings on June 25 and 26 though these would now have a more festive air. They said European groups would now turn their attention to a July meeting of G-8 leaders hosted by Silvio Berlusconi's new government in Genoa.

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