Global View: US, not poverty, sets agenda

By IAN CAMPBELL, Chief Economics Correspondent  |  April 21, 2002 at 8:02 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 21 (UPI) -- Washington saw some of the world's most powerful people gather this weekend in the meeting rooms of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and U.S. Treasury while on the far side of the barriers and the serried ranks of helmeted policemen, protesters marched bearing signs such as "Cancel the Debt" and effigies of World Bank president, James Wolfensohn.

Division is what the protests are about: the division between the worlds of the rich and poor, between powerful corporations and powerless people, between plenty and want.

The protesters tend to blame trade, rather than the lack of it, for poverty, but they are sincere in wanting action now to tackle poverty.

As the weekend draws to a close, however, it has become clear that the world's superpower has determined the agenda -- and has been deaf not only to the protesters behind the barricades but to some of the problems presented within the rooms of power.

Friday, Wolfensohn -- the man, not the effigy -- had a protest of his own. He tentatively dropped in reply to a question, an apparent gauntlet before the U.S. administration. The United State's recent decision to raise tariffs on imported steel went counter to all he was attempting to do, Wolfensohn said.

Would this gauntlet be picked up? Would Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill offer some response? Would the United States make some conciliatory gesture, expressing its commitment to opening its markets to developed country exports?

The day after Saturday's meetings, we had our answer. O'Neill said that the Group of Seven Industrialized countries' meetings were becoming "better and better."

"Nobody read out a prepared statement," the treasury secretary said. The meetings were moving more and more toward the free discussion O'Neill prefers. And, it would seem, towards the topics he wants.

The U.S. statements about the Group of Seven Industrialized Countries did not mention the importance of overcoming the setback the United States had inflicted on world trade. Indeed, they paid little attention to the question of poverty at all. There is a simple reason: The world's superpower does not have poverty on its brain, but something else.

The United States has an obsession -- the problem of terrorism and, specifically, funding for it.

This, of course, is not an idle obsession. Far from it, it is a vital one, even to this and other correspondents sitting in a room with powerful men who might be a bomber's targets. But an obsession it is, and, in the nature of obsessions, it appears to have driven out what should be considered equally pressing concerns.

Some 800 million people in the world do not have enough to eat, the United Nations says, and 125 million children never enter school, the World Bank judges. That is a pressing concern, for all those millions and indeed for the protesters who banged their improvised drums, made from waste bins or water tanks, outside the World Bank's headquarters this weekend.

Nothing could be more important than education if poverty is to be reduced, not just because skills raise productivity but also because educated citizens are better able to monitor, guide and direct the activities of their leaders.

And, on education, some progress was indeed made.

The U.K. Chancellor Gordon Brown threw his backing behind the education initiative, and so did Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin as well as Dutch and Norwegian ministers.

Yet -- as Phil Twyford of the non-governmental organization Oxfam pointed out to James Wolfensohn and his fellow panelists -- one country was "conspicuous by its absence" in the effort to educate all the world's citizens. The reader can guess which country it was.

Your correspondent asked Wolfensohn Sunday what progress had been made in dealing with his complaint about higher U.S. steel tariffs?

Wolfensohn said he had pressed the issue all weekend and that developed countries had also complained about it.

Nonetheless, all was not ill in Washington this weekend. A fresh commitment to giving aid has emerged since the U.N. Financing for Development conference in Monterrey in March. Ultimately the still more important battle for opening up developed country markets to developing country exports was certainly not fought successfully. It has been put off for another day.

This delay should not have been allowed, if the United States wants to reduce the problem of international terrorism, for it is likely that poverty contributes to it.

Perhaps the motley band of protesters were right after all. They, at least, are impatient.


Global View is a weekly column in which our economics correspondent reflects on issues of importance for the global economy. Comments to

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