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The World Bank and the Palestinians

by MATS SVENSSON

We used to meet at Borderline Restaurant, myself and three young, well-educated men (always men) from “The Bank.” We were discussing the recent World Bank meeting in Al Ram. President Arafat had just died in Paris. The meeting in Al Ram, therefore, had an unusually high attendance. More than 100 diplomats had gathered in the cramped room. The circumstances surrounding Arafat’s death remained a bit strange with many question marks. Had he died of natural causes or had he been murdered? The political scene had changed with his passing. Everything was suddenly different.

Also the mood between diplomats had been affected by his death. Now there was great concern for the upcoming elections. Together with the Palestinian Authority, both presidential and parliamentary elections were being planned. Finally democracy.

The starting point was that all Palestinian political parties would participate in order to ensure democratic elections. The U.S. president had waved with his whole hand. Ensure democracy.

There were also concerns that Hamas would come to influence future policy. However, most people were quite sure that Hamas would not win and that their influence would be able to be limited. Hamas would be allowed to participate in the elections but be marginalized as much as possible.

To ensure the marginalization of Hamas, the World Bank presented a proposal during the meeting regarding comprehensive budget support to the Palestinian Authority. The aid would be targeting the poor. During the meeting it became clear that this request had come partly from the Palestinian Authority with Fatah in the lead but that it was above submitted on behalf of the U.S. administration.

Many of us slightly raised our eyebrows. Budget support to the Palestinian Authority!

The Bush administration’s task to the World Bank read, “Try to get Europe to pay.” The U.S. Congress would never agree to directly funding the Palestinian Authority.

During the meeting we received a thick, voluminous document. The pages were full of statistics, tables and evidence. We could read about the rapidly growing poverty on the Palestinian countryside, increasing food prices, transportation costs and unemployment, expensive water, expensive electricity as well as about the growing feeling of being trapped behind high walls.

The World Bank also said that it was possible to say that the Palestinian Authority was “on track” to receive these external resources. Just before Arafat’s death, it had been “off track.” Many of us around the table again raised an eyebrow. Even this had changed. “On track!” The Bank’s message was that there was no longer a reason to oppose a potential budget support to the Palestinian Authority.

At Borderline Restaurant, I now asked the World Bank’s young men, “On track? What is it that is on track? What has happened since the previous meeting, the meeting that was held before Arafat died?” Back then, the criticism had been harsh. Extensive reforms were needed. Back then, it felt as if Palestine lay in darkness. Back then, they had talked about corruption, abuse of power and a non-existent management.

I tried to tell the Harvard educated World Bank economists, “It is true that Arafat before his death managed to remove the brown envelopes. Wages had begun to be paid via bank accounts. But change had been minimal. The big change was that Arafat had died, the rest did not show any positive trends. Palestine was still off track.”

The young well-educated men in their dark suits all looked at me with a strange look. Waited me out for a moment and then asked if I had not understood what it is all about. “Do you not understand, Mats, that what we are writing is a political document? It is all politics. We can prove anything. In Palestine, there are no reliable statistics to lean on. Move the numbers a few tenths up and another half percent down and everything changes. Our latest task,” said the men in blue, “has been to pick out a political base that can demonstrate that it is safe to provide budgetary support to the Palestinian Authority before the next presidential and parliamentary elections. Prove that we are on track. With statistics, we can prove anything. No one can refute us. Very few move beyond the wide roads.”

”We all know that Hamas is growing and that Fatah needs our help,” they continued. “Mats, this is not about supporting the rural people of Palestine but to combat what has been defined as evil.”

At Borderline Restaurant sit three young men from the World Bank and lecture a notoriously naive Swede. A Swede who so badly wanted to believe that what was said was true. A Swede who recently believed that a thick, well-written World Bank document was based on truth, still hoping that Muhammed Rashid’s story and the reality behind the wall in Abu Dis would mean something.

Borderline, if one could tell its story, would tell you that the reality is something other than statistics and tables. Approximately where we sat there was formerly a gate that constituted the crossing from west to east Jerusalem. Recently one became humiliated at this place that was called Mandelbaum Gate.

Mats Svensson, a former Swedish diplomat working on the staff of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is presently following the ongoing occupation of Palestine.  He can be reached at isbjorn2001@hotmail.com.  

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