World Bank Shuts Out Dissident Voices

To the bankers and government officials who descended on the city state for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund annual meetings in September, Singapore may have looked like the perfect model of a globalized consumer society. Tellingly, for the first time, the annual meetings took place inside a giant shopping mall. Corporate logos dominated the venue, shoppers went happily about fulfilling their consumer duties, and the delegates were shrouded in a constant cloud of Muzak.

Dissident voices have no place in a Singapore-style consumer paradise. At the World Bank’s annual meeting, civil society protests were restricted to a small stage inside the shopping mall. And Singapore’s government banned close to 30 experienced civil society activists from entering the country altogether. The media frenzy that followed the reprisals overshadowed the fact that the ban was just a pale reflection of the repression which poor people in the underbelly of global consumer society — and often at the receiving end of World Bank projects — experience.

To keep the wheels of the world’s consumer society spinning, new resources of land, water, forests and minerals constantly need to be brought into the market system. The people who own or use these lands, forests and rivers have usually no control over how their resources are appropriated. Outside the limelight of global media attention, repression often reigns large.

On the way to Singapore, I visited several World Bank projects in Pakistan. In the villages around Makhad, a small town on the left bank of the Indus River, we learned that many poor farmers are currently selling their land to the large landlords. The region is at risk of being flooded by the proposed Kalabagh Dam, and the farmers know that once their land is expropriated, only the rich will be able to pay the bribes required to receive fair compensation. If Kalabagh follows the example of other dam and irrigation projects in Pakistan, the large farmers will also bribe the water bureaucrats so that they can build illegal canals and divert additional water flows. Like the people who were displaced by the reservoirs, the small farmers at the end of the irrigation canals will be left high and dry.

Journalists who write about development conflicts in Pakistan live dangerously. In April, Mehruddin Maree, a journalist who used to cover the impacts of large dams and irrigation canals on the Indus delta, was arrested by the police in Golarchi, a small town in Southern Pakistan. He has been missing ever since. “We are often intimidated when we touch on the interests of powerful parties, but this would not stop Mehruddin,” one of his colleagues told me. The case of Mehruddin Maree is not an exception. Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, Pakistan’s interior minister, confirmed in 2005 that about 5,000 political activists and journalists are missing in the country.

Paul Wolfowitz, the new head of the World Bank, has made good governance and the fight against corruption central themes of his presidency. He has suspended projects in several countries over corruption concerns in recent months, and the World Bank member governments agreed on a framework to combat corruption in Singapore. Yet it is not likely that the President’s crusade against corruption will have any consequences for Pakistan, a frontline state in the Bush administration’s war on terror. In spite of widespread repression and corruption, the World Bank announced in summer 2005 that it plans to increase its lending for the country’s water sector tenfold between 2006 and 2010. If the Bank gets its way, this support will include $300 million for a mega-dam project like Kalabagh.

The annual meeting in Singapore was far removed from the ground realities in countries like Pakistan. “Throughout the world, there is a growing recognition that the path to prosperity must be built on a solid foundation of good governance,” Wolfowitz told the government delegates.

Just as the Muzak in Singapore’s shopping malls drowned out the original tunes, the struggles of small farmers and journalists in countries like Pakistan disappeared in the rhetoric of the annual meeting. As the World Bank prepares increased support for projects like the Kalabagh Dam, civil society activists will need to work hard for the drumbeat of ground realities to be heard through the development Muzak emanating from Singapore and Washington.

PETER BOSSHARD is the policy director of International Rivers Network, an environmental and human rights group based in Berkeley, California and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.