Defying global finance

It has been just over twenty years since tens of thousands of us converged for a series of mass demonstrations and direct actions in Washington D.C. to protest global inequality and denounce the economic and social violence linked to World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies. 

As the political direction of the economic response to the coronavirus by these major international financial institutions is ongoing, it is again time to challenge their policies from a progressive perspective. Questioning the global role that these institutions play remains as important as it was 20 years ago. 

Since 1944, after being founded in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, the World Bank and the IMF have emerged as key institutional tools for Group of 7 economies, and particularly the US, to shape global economic frameworks in their interest. In the past two decades the beneficiaries of these policies shifted to include corporate elites in Group of 20 nations. 

In many cases, the policies pushed by the World Bank and IMF have worked toward bringing the economies of the south under the coercive influence of western capital markets by creating dependency driven economic frameworks. Grants and loans from these institutions come at great cost for the global south. 

Scan of a film photograph from protests against the World Bank and IMF on April 16, 2000. Photo: Stefan Christoff.

The World Bank wrote in April that they are “expecting a major global recession” as a result of the coronavirus. But the key question today is whether or not the market policies international finance proposes are a good solution to the overlapping global health and economic crises.

The economic fallout “will be devastating for the south, because as we go in to recession, many countries in the global south are going to face mass unemployment, the fact that many people lack reasonable health care and shelter in many cases,” said Mostafa Henaway, a community activist with the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal. “Even for workers for many major western corporations, like [within] the textile industry in Bangladesh, this economic recession will deeply impact many countries in the global south that rely on manufacturing for the north.”

Henaway’s perspective is echoed by emerging research. “New analysis shows the economic crisis caused by coronavirus could push over half a billion people into poverty unless urgent and dramatic action is taken. This virus affects us all, even princes and film stars,” reads a recent statement from Oxfam. “But the equality ends there. By exploiting the extreme inequalities between rich and poor people, rich and poor nations and between women and men, unchecked this crisis will cause immense suffering.”

Pushing economic development within so called developing economies through foreign direct investment has been central to World Bank and IMF policy for many years. This has contributed to the creation of mass production models that today are uncertain within a global pandemic economy.

“The International Monetary Fund and World Bank said on Friday that official creditors have mobilized up to $57 billion in loans and grants for Africa in 2020 to aid the continent’s response and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic,” according to a recent report in Reuters.

“The World Bank has already said… that they will need to push structural adjustment and pro market policies even further as a response, it will just reenforce these types of damaging policies to try to keep the funds within this international market balanced in the G-7 and also now elites in the G-20 economies,” said Henaway as we conversed from a safe social distance in Montréal. 

A history of struggle against international finance

It is key to recall the activism, particularly in the global south, that prefigured the anti-globalization protests that kicked off in Seattle in 1999. As activists, retracing our lineage of opposition to these institutions is important, especially right now. This includes reviewing our critiques, but also protest tactics and strategies for collection convergence and opposition. 

“Following struggles against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) across the developing world in the mid 1980s, protests against global summits gathered momentum,” write Kees Hudig and Emma Dowling.

Activists have mobilized in major ways to confront these types of policies and successfully raised the alarm on the World Bank and IMF before. It was twenty years ago that I and thousands of others traveled to Washington DC in April 2000 as part of the Mobilization for Global Justice convergence. 

Global justice was a key term in these actions. Already, during the protests in D.C., activists were making the connection between economic injustice and environmental injustice. 

My travel to D.C. in April 2000 was facilitated by the Concordia Student Union, which had organized buses for students and community members from Montreal to travel to join the demonstrations. As a non-student at the time, I heard about the buses during a broadcast of Alternative Radio on CKUT out of McGill University. I remember the bus info for joining the protest caravan to D.C. was broadcast right after a lecture by Indian activist Vandana Shiva speaking critically about the World Bank and IMF policies in India, specifically around the Narmada River dam. 

At the protests in D.C. there were striking puppets on the streets, some which were constructed by David Solnit and friends. Author and community activist Lisa Fithian facilitated a direct action decision making process on the streets of the US capital on April 17th, 2000. 

This convergence was the first time a confrontational approach to the World Bank and IMF was adopted in North America, which aimed to question the economic model that these organizations were pushing globally. Activists from all over North America and the world came together to share ideas, strategize and build a movement together against neo-colonial capitalist policies. 

Today the World Bank and IMF emphasize to a degree a discourse that speaks to global inequality, but in their actions they propose no serious shift away from the economic models that brought us to this point of global economic injustice and uncertainty. 

Critical geographer David Harvey speaks to some of the economic thinking that have been central to the economic policy of the World Bank and IMF. Harvey outlines how these models came to be applied in the US and exported elsewhere in a conversation with Fiona Jeffries in her book Nothing to Lose but our Fear:

There’s no question that the response to the fiscal difficulties of New York City in 1975 was partly the response of a white power structure that was fearful, to go back to the fear question, of rising black power. So I think that there’s no question that it had a very strong racial component. At the same time, it was also about disciplining labour and discipling the population of New York City as a whole. In a way, it was a pioneer structural adjustment program. When I say this, though, I also think it was a pioneer experiment. I don’t think the capitalist class knew exactly what to do. I don’t think that they sat down and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this!’ I think it was more like, “My God, there’s this mess. Let’s try this, let’s do that.” But by the time they came to the end of the 1970s and they looked at what they had done to New York, they said, ‘Hey, this is a pretty good idea.’ And when Mexico got into unmanageable debt in 1982, they said, ‘Well, hey, let’s go do to Mexico what we did to New York City.’

Donald Trump’s economic power stems partially from this era in New York City. The corruption inherent to neoliberal economic policy allowed Trump to gobble up real estate in Manhattan at reduced prices due to tax break systems for property developers. This economic model, pushed by banks and creditors, viewed high end real estate development –exactly the types of projects that Trump was proposing– as a positive form of investment in the city. 

Activist opposition to the World Bank and IMF has taken place over generations, and included some major protest convergence points in the past decades, including :

1988, Berlin, Germany: “Thousands of leftist demonstrators, some masked and waving black anarchist flags or throwing stones, protested world financial policies Sunday about a block from where International Monetary Fund and World Bank officials prepared for an upcoming summit,” as reported by UPI.

2000, Washington DC: Activists converged for one of the major protests against the World Bank and IMF seen in generations, tens-of-thousands joined the street protests outside of the IMF – World Bank Spring meetings, listen to an archived report from Democracy Now!

2000, Prague, Czech Republic: Tens-of-thousands protested the World Bank summit in the days leading up to the summit on September 27, subject the documentary film “Revolting In Prague

2001, Barcelona, Spain: Tens-of-thousands again protested on June 25-27 during World Bank meetings, photos of the protest from Indymedia Barcelona are archived on

2002, Oslo, Norway: Major protests took place during the World Bank Annual Bank Conference on Development Economics in Oslo, there is background on the protests here

2002, Washington DC: for the first time since 9/11 there were major protests in D.C. which led to mass arrests and a resulting lawsuit that the protesters eventually won. More protests were held in the city during the annual meetings in April linking opposition to both the “War on Terror” and the economic policies of the World Bank and IMF, even the major media covered this. Here’s a report on CNN

2003, Bolivia: Protests against the government in Bolivia at the time, against water privatization linked the economic injustice in Bolivia to World Bank and IMF policy. 

2007, Washington DC: a series of protests against the World Bank and IMF in a convergence format, with activists converging from all over the U.S. and beyond, this mobilization was called the October Rebellion

2009, Istanbul, Turkey: mass protest against the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and IMF that many connected to the injustice of the Turkish government, police repression was a reality on the streets and the same networks that mobilized for this protest in 2009 were part of the important Gezi Park actions. 

2011, Tunisia: Activists made links between the protests against injustice and corruption in Tunisia and the IMF/World Bank directed reforms that were inherent to the dictatorship. 

2011, Occupy Wall Street, USA: Connections between the economic injustice being expressed on the streets generally during Occupy Wall Street and actions around the world that mirrored Occupy in NYC, links were made to IMF/World Bank policy. 

2011, Egypt: The policies of the former Mubarak government in Egypt, overthrown by protests, were connected to the economic and social injustice within Egypt as tied to World Bank and IMF structural adjustment policies. 

The dates listed above are in no way a comprehensive list of the many actions that have taken place against the World Bank and IMF. Rather, they represent an attempt to highlight some important dates of protests over the past decades and illustrate the global critique of these institutions. 

As the pandemic continues, the World Bank and the IMF are proposing to play a major role in the economic decision making on our future economic direction, we must recall the many efforts that have taken place to protest and confront these institutions, but also the ideas that brought people to the streets.

Author Bio:

Stefan Christoff is a musician, media maker and community activist in Montreal, you can find Stefan on Twitter @spirodon.