Some of my best friends have had long and distinguished careers at the World Bank. They are, I know, good people. But have they, and their colleagues at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) been working for organizations that are now fundamentally flawed? That's the charge raised by protesters outside the two bodies' annual meetings, in Washington this week.
These protests, like the ones against the World Trade Organization in Seattle last November, raise important - if sometimes uncomfortable - questions about how democracy is to be preserved, and decent human values respected, in the increasingly "global" world of our new century. Questions like these:
*Why should officials appointed by the US, which makes up 4 percent of the world's population, have a disproportionate say in how poor countries comprised of billions run their economies?
*Why should we expect that the rules of property as they developed in the West (which is not the only way they might have developed) now be applied in exactly this same way in countries facing very different circumstances?
*How can the world's 6 billion people, coming as we do from a range of backgrounds, and facing diverse economic circumstances, devise a reasonable and accountable way to organize our economic interactions?
Now is a good time to discuss issues like these. Here in the US, many now enjoy unprecedented wealth and are thus able to bring generous hearts to issues of global sharing. (One of the most telling quotes in my new book, "The Moral Architecture of World Peace," came from former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. He noted that Americans spend $8 billion annually on cosmetics - "enough to provide a basic education to all the world's children." It is also roughly the same sum just one individual, MicroStrategy's President Michael Saylor, lost in a couple of days' volatility on the stock market back in March.)
So what is the role of the World Bank and the IMF in today's globalized economy? The two bodies were chartered by the United Nations back in 1945.
Their original role was to provide stability for the post-World War II global economy, but they were soon transformed into instruments of Washington's cold war diplomacy. For decades during the cold war, decisions on giving or denying loans were closely tied to the cold-war orientation of the borrowing government. Much of that money flowed rapidly into the private coffers of pro-American dictators like Zaire's President Mobutu - a fact that was generally known, but too often tolerated. Questions of how much the loans contributed to the well-being of the recipient countries' peoples were studied at some length, but were too seldom judged to be of definitive importance. Cold-war diplomacy ruled.
So the West "won" the cold war (and economic diplomacy, as pursued through the World Bank and IMF, probably helped win it). The Soviet Union collapsed. And throughout the 1990s, the two economic bodies finally - if belatedly - noticed that questions of governance in borrowing countries were indeed tied closely to the human and economic well-being of their peoples. "Programs," "initiatives," and other bureaucracies dealing with governance questions in the borrowing countries proliferated in both bodies.
But the people who run these programs haven't yet turned their gaze on the even larger governance issues involved in the bodies for which they themselves work. How can it be considered reasonable that decisions in these bodies are made by boards of governors, many of whom represent nondemocratic governments, and where the votes are weighted according to the raw wealth of the countries concerned?
True, many now-democratic nations once had political structures in which votes were tied to property. But that system was everywhere judged as flawed. Wherever democracy has flourished, and brought its inevitable benefits, it has done so according to a "one-person-one-vote" system. Now that economic and information links tie us ever closer in a single world community, why should rules of decision making within it be any different?
So the protesters force us to think about important issues. Are the World Bank and the IMF capable of adapting to the idea of a democratic and accountable world community? If not, what other bodies might democrats hope to devise? This conversation - and let's hope it stays a conversation - should certainly continue.
* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs. Her newest book, 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace: Nobel Laureates Discuss our Global Future,' will be available in May from the University Press of Virginia.
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