Can a bank change? Not without public pressure, say supporters of the World Bank Bonds Boycott. For many countries in the Majority World the Bank is a key source of new funds to support their fragile economies – as well as one of the most powerful forces pushing the dogma of privatization.
But there’s a catch. The Bank’s loans come with a set of rigid conditions commonly known as ‘structural adjustment’. In practice that means poor countries are obliged to make their economies more ‘market friendly’– a euphemism that translates into cuts in healthcare and education, selling off state-owned enterprises, lowering barriers to foreign investors and prioritizing debt repayment over human needs.
The Bank’s spindoctors recently coined the term Poverty Reduction Strategy to replace structural adjustment but little has changed. Indeed, there’s greater pressure now on poor countries to follow the privatization route.
The World Bank Boycott was created as a way of challenging the Bank’s public image and its main source of financing. Most of its funds (about 80 per cent) are raised by selling bonds in private financial markets. Many of the purchasers are large public institutions like municipalities and universities – or pension funds representing millions of individuals. So there is a tremendous potential for changing Bank policy by convincing people not to buy these bonds. Originally launched in April 2000, the boycott has now spread to more than 30 countries in the South as well as to the US, Canada, Britain and Europe. Groups from Haiti, Senegal, Zimbabwe, India and Thailand provide campaigners in the North with examples of the devastating impact of Bank policies on the ground.
But the campaign is most advanced in the US. Seven cities (including San Francisco, Berkeley and Boulder) and a number of national trade unions and faith communities have passed motions pledging to sell bonds or not to buy them. TIAA-CREF, the largest private pension fund in the country, sold all its Bank bonds last autumn after a grassroots campaign by pension fund holders.
The Bank may not have changed yet. But there are signs it is paying attention. Part of the concern is that the boycott will threaten bond ratings, a crucial factor for investors. A loss of its ‘triple A’ status could dry up the World Bank’s revenue flow. Bank staffers have been parachuted in to lobby council members in advance of recent US municipal votes on boycott motions. Last year in Los Angeles the Bank’s PR machine went into high gear before the boycott even started.