Bash the World Bank

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It always struck me how quickly the term “bank-basher” was trotted out in the days of the bank merger debate. With similar quickness the word “America-hating” has become a staple of media discourse these days. The suggestion seems to be that anyone who questions how Canadian banks or the United States government exercise power is suffering from some kind of near-demented, hate-filled rage.

Another possibility is that such critics have no interest in bashing or hating anyone, but merely wish to express disagreement over how these institutions are exercising their considerable power.

It’s odd that such critics are so vigorously attacked in the media. (the National Post gave huge play recently, for instance, to a frothy commentary by novelist Salman Rushdie attacking critics for “America-hating.”)

I find this curious because most media commentators take pride in being critics themselves. They like to present themselves as being tough-minded, unsentimental — even cynical — in their approach to human motivation. In keeping with this, they generally subscribe to the view, advanced by mainstream economic theory, that humans are primarily motivated by material self-interest.

This view may have some shortcomings as a comprehensive theory of human behaviour, by leaving out some of the complexities. But as an approach to journalism, it seems quite sensible. Certainly, a bit of skepticism about human motivation seems like a healthy instinct in those whose job is, among other things, to keep a watchful eye on the exercise of power.

How curious, then, that this healthy skepticism about the self-serving nature of human motivation somehow disappears when it comes to assessing the behaviour of those who wield serious power — like those who own banks or major corporations, or who run the U.S. government.

Suddenly, when confronted with these sorts of enormously powerful individuals, many media pundits become strangely trusting, assuming that the motivation of the rich and powerful is different than that of regular folks who operate used car dealerships or work at check-out counters, that the superpowerful, unlike the rest of us, are out to do good in the world.

So when these pundits hear others criticize the superpowerful, they assume the critics are full of hatred and keen to bash, rather than simply doing what the pundits themselves should be doing — applying a critical perspective to those wielding power.

A recent article in The Guardian newspaper on the impact of “globalization” on poor countries helps illustrate the point.

The article, written by John Kampfner, focused on the devastating story of a woman in Ghana whose life has become miserable, apparently due to the policies of the key Western-controlled lending institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

As the article explained, the IMF and the World Bank would only lend money to Ghana if it agreed to create favourable conditions for foreign mining companies, providing them with a ten-year tax holiday, removing environmental regulations, and allowing them to take over huge tracts of land, including the farm where this woman’s family once supported themselves. Forced off her land, the woman now works — alongside her children — breaking rocks for a living

The IMF and World Bank also insisted that Ghana privatize key public services — including water treatment and delivery — and remove government subsidies aimed at making basic necessities affordable to the population.

As a result, the woman in the article not only faces user fees for basic health care and schooling, but also has to pay from her meagre earnings for the daily bucket of clean drinking water that she and her children carry from the local well, and she also must pay every morning so they can all use a public toilet.

Now, it seems to me that this kind of tragic personal tale raises some powerful and compelling questions.

There is considerable evidence that her plight — and the plight of millions of others like her throughout the underdeveloped world — is directly related to the policies of the IMF and the World Bank. Perhaps there is some justification for treating her and others like this.

Perhaps there are some media or think-tank types who might argue, for instance, that breaking rocks for a living will teach her and her children the value of hard work, that paying to use a public toilet each day will instill in them the values of self-discipline, and that, equipped with these skills, the whole family will be better off in the long run.

But there are many ordinary people who, lacking the benefit of training in economics, would find her plight sad and unfair, and might question the role Western governments, including Canada, are playing in allowing the IMF and World Bank to perpetuate situations like this.

But those who raise these sorts of questions — for instance, the thousands of people who gathered earlier this month in Porto Alegre, Brazil to hold an economic summit to counter the World Economic Forum in New York — are generally dismissed as “America-haters” for questioning the way Washington and the U.S. corporate elite wield power.

The attempt to suggest such critics have a screw or two loose has become quite imaginative in recent months. It’s now common, for instance, to insist that critics of Washington are simply suffering from a bitter-loser syndrome, that, as Rushdie characterized it: “We hate America because it has made of itself what we cannot make of ourselves.”

By this logic, they can dismiss the criticisms of the Ghanaian woman breaking rocks for a living — or anyone sympathizing with her plight — as simply sour grapes. She’s just bitter and twisted because she doesn’t get to go to the spa every day and have her highlights done like a regular rich American woman.

It is no doubt comforting to dismiss critics as hate-crazed bashers or simply sore losers. It’s certainly easier than having to actually deal with their arguments.

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