Energizing Worldwide Movement

by Tony Avirgan

A major initiative taken by citizens' organizations in conjunction with the World Bank to assess the highly unpopular structural adjustment programs (SAPs) promoted by the Bank is generating a powerful grassroots mobilization around the globe.

The Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative, which was born through a dialogue between the then-new World Bank President James Wolfensohn and the staunchest critics of the Bank, is currently supported by a worldwide network of almost 1.000 civil-society organizations. It is being implemented in eight countries by national coalitions that are bringing together non-governmental organizations, labor unions, farmers' associations, women's groups, chambers of commerce, manufacturers' associations, churches and every other type of group that feels its members have been negatively effected by the structural adjustment programs imposed by the Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Most of these groups have been separately struggling against SAPs, but SAPRI marks the first time they have been united on the national and global level.

For many years, NGOs, labor unions and other citizens' groups in the South and North have pointed to the negative and sometimes disastrous effects of SAPs, particularly on the poor, workers, women, small enterprises and farms, food security, the environment, and domestic productive capacity. Through a variety of vehicles they have challenged the Bank to systematically incorporate local populations, their organizations and their knowledge into the definition and design of national economic programs and in other ways to democratize the economic policymaking process.

In 1995, a group of U.S. and international NGOs led by the Washington-based Development GAP met with Wolfensohn and proposed that the Bank undertake a bottom-up review of adjustment programs in conjunction with local organizations. The delegation leadership subsequently responded to Wolfensohn's request for a concrete proposal by shaping - in consultation with some 30 organizations around the world - a comprehensive mechanism for a qualitative assessment of structural adjustment and its impact on four continents.

Later, the Bank president accepted the basic elements of the proposal and designated Lyn Squire, Director of the Policy Research Department, to work out the details of the exercise with the leadership of what has now become a network of 1,000 organizations of civil society worldwide, including major labor unions including the AFL-CIO, churches and peasant associations, that have given their support to the Initiative.

The Bank and NGO teams have agreed that the principal objectives of the endeavor shall be to learn about the workings and impact of specific adjustment measures and to identify and set the stage for appropriate changes in adjustment operations and programs and for more participatory and effective economic-policymaking processes. It is the common goal of the Initiative to bring into the policymaking process with the Bank and governments those previously excluded elements of civil society that work with and represent local populations and that can provide in each country critically important input regarding the "real economy".

The exercise had its official start on 14 July 1997 at a Public Launch in Washington, D.C.
(See: InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS) article)
Wolfensohn gave the keynote speech for the World Bank and the civil-society network (SAPRIN) was represented by Argentinian Senator Graciela Fernandez Meijide.

Each country investigation will commence with a public forum organized by a steering committee comprising Bank staff and NGOs and other representatives of civil society, such as labor unions and peasant associations. These and other local organizations will present their perspectives and analysis on the impact of adjustment policies, informing Bank, government, and other official representatives about local realities. Agreement will be sought on matters related to the evolving circumstances of different population groups and sectors under adjustment and on their policy-related causes.

Issues that are not resolved will be investigated by a civil-society/Bank team through field work that will rely primarily on participatory techniques designed to take into account qualitative, as well quantitative, information. The effects of measures ranging from trade liberalization and privatization to credit, labor and fiscal policy will be assessed from a local perspective, and their policy-related, institutional and other causes identified by tracing the implementation of these measures through the real economy. An emphasis will be placed on determining where popular involvement can improve failing policies or help identify more appropriate and viable policy measures.

The field findings will be presented, discussed and assessed at a follow-up forum in each country. Concrete actions related to changes in national adjustment programs, the opening of the adjustment-planning process to broad local participation, and modifications in the Bank's own adjustment-planning instruments, such as Country Assistance Strategies, will be determined in these meetings. These findings and agreed-upon actions from each of the ten country exercises will then be presented at a major forum in Washington, where recommended changes in Bank programming will be discussed with Bank senior management and policymakers and follow-up actions planned. This forum, like the in-country ones, will be public and fully transparent.

In the eight countries that have so far been incorporated into SAPRI -- Ghana, Mali, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Hungary, Ecuador, El Salvador and Bangladesh -- citizens' organizations have expressed a willingness to undertake the program and the government has agreed to participate. The governments of Mexico and the Philippines have decided not to be involved. The SAPRI Civil Society Network (SAPRIN) Steering Committee has expressed its displeasure to the World Bank over the fact that the institution has been unsuccessful in engaging these or other large emerging-market economies in the Initiative, despite the fact that they have received billions of dollars in adjustment-related lending from the Bank and are used as models for other countries to follow. What is more disturbing is that the Bank has refused to even solicit government cooperation in other countries, including Argentina, which, like Mexico, have implemented an economic program that has had a disastrous impact on most of its population.

In each of the aforementioned "excluded" countries, citizens' organizations are considering moving ahead with a SAPRI-like exercise, extending an invitation to the government and the World Bank to join the process.

In the "official" SAPRI countries, local organizing is proceeding, taking into account local conditions. In Uganda, for instance, the newly formed NGO Forum, an umbrella group of some 600 organizations, has taken on SAPRI. In keeping with the SAPRI Standard Operating Procedures, the Forum was required to reach out to organizations beyond its normal scope, and successful solicitations to join the process were made to labor unions and business associations. As in other countries, this marked the first time that NGOs and unions have worked closely together and both parties are enthusiastic about the possibilities.

In El Salvador, SAPRI is being led by FUNDE, a development organization with roots in peasant organizing during 1980s. Although a FUNDE official, Roberto Rubio is on the SAPRI global Steering Committee, FUNDE's selection as the lead agency was not automatic. Instead, FUNDE was chosen as the "outreach organization" and set about to invite scores of unions, NGOs, farmers' unions, business associations and indigenous groups to an organizing meeting. Information packets on the SAPRI process were prepared and sent out to every group in the country that was thought to possibly have an interest. Nearly 100 groups showed up and, in a democratic process, chose FUNDE as the lead agency.

In Zimbabwe, the "outreach organization" was not chosen as the lead agency. Instead of the NGOs that were responsible for building the coalition, Zimbabwean groups chose the university- based Poverty Forum as the lead agency, primarily because of that body's previous experience in handling the finances of large projects. Zimbabwean SAPRI groups have been particularly imaginative in their efforts to build the coalition. Because newspapers do not reach many remote rural areas of Zimbabwe, arrangements were made with a national radio network to broadcast a weekly show on SAPRI throughout the life of the exercise.

This ground-breaking initiative being taken by the Bank and some of its strongest critics reflects the beginning of a change in attitude in some parts of the international financial community. Sobering experiences with adjustment from Mexico to Russia and ever-broadening public challenges to these policies, paralleled by growing poverty and economic inequality almost everywhere that these policies have been put in place, have created openings for the first time for the beginning of meaningful policy dialogue.

The civil-society organizations involved in SAPRI are not naive, however, about the possibilities of the exercise resulting in a change in the World Bank's fundamental economic policies. In fact, it is not lost on anyone that, while the Bank uses SAPRI to demonstrate that it is doing something on the adjustment issue with its critics and civil society generally, it is considering TIGHTENING the adjustment noose around the necks of borrower governments. If SAPRI does achieve its goal of creating greater flexibility for governments to respond to the knowledge and priorities of their own people -- and significant change in the reform agenda does emerge from the exercise -- it will be an important victory. But, as SAPRI progresses, participating groups are seeing that its greatest value may prove to be the breaking down of barriers that have traditionally divided civil society and the building, on the national and international level, of large, powerful coalitions demanding popular participation in the making of just economic policies.

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