How the World Bank Makes Everything Worse
Raj Patel has worked for the World Bank and WTO and been tear-gassed on four continents protesting against them. Writer, activist, and academic, he is currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Centre for African Studies, a researcher at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First.
Question: What causes hunger today?
Raj Patel: So this goes back to the question of root causes. I’m very keen to, as I say, to learn about ways in which we can address the root causes of poverty. And when I was a graduate student, I was offered the opportunity to intern for and work for the World Bank. And I was given the opportunity to examine a range of classified World Bank documents to see how the World Bank was talking about poverty, about the ways that it was tackling the poor. And I thought, I’ll do that. Classified documents, insight into one of the world’s largest organizations designed to tackle poverty. I’ll do that.
Now it turns out that the examination of these documents wasn’t going to be a critical examination of these documents. Instead it turned out that those documents were used to create, basically, a sort of puff piece called “Voices of the Poor, Can Anyone Hear Us?” Now, it’s important to get a sense of what the World Bank does and how it operates. If you don’t know anything about the World Bank, I have a small contribution to the world of pedagogy and it relies on a metaphor that comes from the Terry Gilliam film, “Time Bandits.” Now, if you don’t know about “Time Bandits,” “Time Bandits” is a film about disgruntled former employees of God. Now the story is that God built the world in six days, so it was a rush job and God couldn’t do it by himself, he had help. But he treats his labor very badly, and so they run off with a map of the universe with its imperfections and they use the holes in the universe to rob people. So, in one scene, they rob Napoleon and they jump through a hole in time with all of Napoleon’s stuff and they end up in Sherwood Forest where they are met by Robin Hood, who is played by John Cleese as a sort of upper class twit. He’s wearing a sort of bright green hat and he calls himself “Hood.” And Hood’s very excited by all of Napoleon’s stuff and he says, “This is tremendous. Thank you very much indeed. The poor will love this. Have you met the poor? They’re charming people, of course they don’t have too pennies to rub together but that ‘s because they’re poor.” And there’s a scene where Napoleon’s stuff is given away to the poor. And Hood works the line and he’s gilded, and he says, “How long have you been poor? Jolly good. Congratulations. Here, rubies for you.” And right next to him is this big hulking bloke who takes whatever Hood has given and punches the poor person in the face.
So, that’s kind of how the World Bank works. It’s in the business of making these large loans, but it is also a bank so it takes those loans back. And the punch in the face comes from the policies that this organization imposes on developing countries. Policies that have, for example in agriculture, have led to decimation in agriculture in say, Africa. It’s not me making this assessment, in fact, the World Bank a couple of years admitted that its policies have been a disaster in Sub-Saharan Africa. I say all of this because there is this sort of need within the World Bank to have reassurance that what it’s doing is right. A moment of saying, “Well, some of our best friends are poor people, have you met the poor? We had lunch with them yesterday, they love us.” And that’s what I ended up doing. My job was to be part of a research team looking at these research reports on poverty. And the reports that we wrote – the voices of the poor “Can Anyone Hear Us?” was basically a long way for the World Bank to say, “Well have you me – we had lunch with the poor, they love us.” And in fact, at the end of this book was a long description about how the consultants drove up in their Jeep to the village and spontaneously the women bust out in song and they were singing, “Here are the World Bank. Here are the World Bank. They are here to develop us. We hope they won’t forget us.” And the last line of the book is, “Will we?”
And there’s this thing about the way the World Bank works. I mean it needs this kind of self-justification. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like the World Bank is filled with evil-doers. These sort of Blofeldian villains who are sitting in leathers chairs stroking cats thinking, “How are we going to fuck the third world today?” It’s not like that. It’s sort of very well meaning people, but their executing policies that are tremendously bad for developing countries. And the thing is that as a citizen of Britain and soon the United States, that means that this is being done in my name. The European Union and the United States are among the largest shareholders of the World Bank. And that means that I am politically responsible for that. I mean, the World Bank policies are meant to be the expression of the democratic will of the people of Britain and the United States and actually taking political responsibility for the damage that these organizations have caused when doing stuff in my name means that at some point you’ve got to get out there.
And so I’ve protested the actions of the World Bank in a number of places and I was lucky enough to be part of the World Trade Organization process, it’s an ideologically affiliated organization is the world Trade Organization. And the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, I was one of thousands of organizers on the streets then actually standing up against a certain vision of what these organizations were doing in our name. We were standing up against those organizations and those organizations were pushing a development line, a logic about how the third world should work on the third world in a tremendously undemocratic fashion.
And so, right now I think now is a good time to learn democracy on the streets. I mean, that may sound radical, but when Al Gore is saying that now is the time for direct action, and when every movement of social change in history has always been achieved, not through a ballot box, but through people putting their bodies on the line. I mean, I think in order for our democracy to survive and to flourish, taking action against the World Bank, but against institutions that operate in our name that are doing unjust things is the right thing for any citizen to do, and unfortunately I’ve been tear gassed a couple of times. Never arrested though; I’ve always managed to avoid that. And I’ve always, actually every time I’ve been tear gassed, I was assembling legally, it was the police that was responsible for getting out of control. But these have been experiences that I wouldn’t necessarily wish upon anyone, the tear gas part, but the demonstration part and the marching together part was amazing. And in fact, it was in Seattle in 1999 where I first came across the full spectrum of this organization called La Via Campesina, which is this international peasant movement of 150 million farmers, landless rural workers who have members in many countries including the United States and Canada, throughout Europe and of course Africa, Latin America, and Asia. And those moments of learning on the street are tremendous. They are a way of learning to be a citizen; learning to be a small democrat in a way that our schools and our educational system have really haven’t prepared us for. We’re not taught to be citizens. And I think that sometime protests can be a tremendous school for learning how to begin to take responsibility for ourselves.
After reviewing classified World Bank documents, Raj Patel concluded that a loan from this organization is more of a punch to the face than a help to poor nations.
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