Activism Can Hurt the Poor

Sebastian Mallaby, the author of "The World's Banker: A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations" (Penguin Press, October 2004), is a member of the Washington Post editorial page staff.

I’ll miss the old energy of the anti-globalization demonstrators next weekend when I cover the World Bank’s annual meeting. They’ve been redeployed, joining the opposition to the war in Iraq and President Bush.

Ten years ago, however, they supplied drama at the bank’s 50th anniversary with yells of “50 years is enough,” and there were moments of outright hilarity during the uproar of 2000. At the bank’s spring meetings in Washington that year, a low-budget filmmaker needed a crowd scene for his movie about a Bulgarian pastry chef called Stanko, so he armed his buddies with “Free Stanko” placards and filmed them in front of the protesters. Then, perhaps imagining Stanko to be a persecuted Amazonian leader or anti-corporatist Cameroonian hero, the nearby demonstrators joined in: “Free Stanko!” they screamed, without a clue. But the protesters, however colorful, never mattered as much as the continuing, behind-the-scenes attacks on the World Bank and its mission. As I’ve discovered time and again, feisty Internet-enabled activists wage endless campaigns against the world’s premier development institution, forcing it to spend an absurd amount of effort on public relations and delaying good projects that could reduce poverty.

I ran into one instance of the damage caused by such campaigns in Uganda, where the World Bank had been backing a dam to generate badly needed electricity. The project had drawn fire from Western environmental groups, notably the International Rivers Network of Berkeley. The activists argued, among other things, that the dam ignored popular opposition from the Ugandan environmental movement and that it would harm the poor farmers whose land would be flooded.

But when I checked these allegations, I found the evidence was weak. The Ugandan environmental “movement” consisted of a grouplet with only 25 members. And when I teamed up with a local sociologist to interview people around the dam site, I found that they were happy with the money they would get to compensate them for moving.

Or take an example from China. In 1999, the World Bank agreed to back a project that would move 58,000 extremely poor Chinese farmers off barren land into an area where they could grow enough to feed their families. Because the project was in a province that bordered on Tibet, Tibet activists in the West sprang into action: They claimed that the World Bank was backing Han Chinese colonization of Tibetan lands, even though no Han farmers were being imported from outside the province, and even though some of the resettled farmers were themselves Tibetan. Hollywood figures such as Richard Gere joined in the campaign, and Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) beat up on the bank too. After a long, costly fight, the bank pulled out of the project.


Or take the case of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline, another controversial World Bank enterprise. Western activists opposed this, partly on the reasonable ground that oil projects seldom help the poor, but also because the pipeline would supposedly disrupt the rain forest through which it traveled. At the World Bank’s insistence, the pipeline consortium prepared a social and environmental impact study that ran to 19 volumes, but the activists still predicted catastrophe if construction went ahead. In this instance, the protesters were defeated and the pipeline was built -- without any terrible environmental fallout. But the delays cost millions of dollars, and the bill was ultimately paid by the world’s poorest people.

Some delay is clearly good. The bank has a bad history with dams, and its entire environmental staff consisted of five people in 1985 -- an absurdly small number for the financier of huge and risky projects. But since the early 1990s, when the bank created a high-powered environmental department and opened itself up to sociological and anthropological thinking, its projects have given due consideration to biodiversity, indigenous peoples and wildlife. The activist assault, richly justified two decades ago, has become anachronistic and excessive.

The World Bank has done its utmost to fight back. Its president, James Wolfensohn, is a formidable charmer with an infectious, poverty-fighting passion; if he can’t win over the bank’s foes, no leader could. Which means that film stars, members of Congress and (yes) journalists must do their bit to help him out. The World Bank will remain hobbled and encircled until the rest of us begin to treat activist assertions with a dose of skepticism. Some seeming good-guy groups are less noble than they claim to be.