Beware social justice promises by international bankers

Published on Pambazuka News, by Pagtrick Bond, October 13, 2011.

In these days of dire economic and environmental crisis, with political elites under attack from Athens to Washington, the establishment is desperate for legitimacy. Even International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff now publicly endorse social justice’ at the same time they tighten austerity screws, writes Patrick Bond. Someone needs to hold them to account … // 

… At Durban High School’s Seabrooke Theatre on Tuesday, at a videoed repeat of his speech, we heard Serageldin calling social justice ‘the foundation of the modern Republic of South Africa… The light shining from South Africa has finally reached the northern part of the continent, where I live.’

Shining light? Does Serageldin – a long-time Mubarrak supporter – not know that inequality, unemployment and environmental devastation have soared since 1994, thanks mainly to Pretoria’s adoption of World Bank and IMF policies?

He may simply not care. In an interview with the NGO Share International a few years ago, Serageldin was asked, The World Bank has received a fair amount of criticism in recent years for its policies toward the poor and the environment. How have those policies changed during your tenure at the bank?

The answer was as chilling as Gordhan’s: I totally reject the criticism that’s being brought forward against the Bank.

The follow-up question: ‘One of the most controversial areas of involvement for the Bank has been its structural adjustment programs. Some people argue they hurt the poor by forcing governments to reduce or eliminate subsidies for basic goods in exchange for getting World Bank loans. Is that still something that the bank is involved with?’ Replied Serageldin, Sure.

Serageldin is best known for his prophetic 1995 statement, Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water. As if to ensure this would be true, Serageldin became a leader of the water privatisation lobby’s World Water Council. Under his tutelage its main commission aimed ‘to help formulate global water policies.

The World Bank push to end operating subsidies and privatise water was relentless, with Serageldin’s commission arguing that governments should treat water like any other commodity and open its management to free market competition. As he explained in 2003, We pay for food. Why should we not pay for water?

In Johannesburg as well as Argentina, Bolivia and many other sites, this philosophy ensured the early 2000s witnessed water wars of World Bank projects run by French, British and US multinational corporations against poor people.

If, as it seems, the Mandela Foundation and a Johannesburg audience were fooled by Serageldin, this only makes it more important for us here in Durban, in Egypt and everywhere else to ask tough questions to bankers who talk ‘social justice’ but who walk with a stick that always applies ‘nasty’ economic pain to society’s most vulnerable. (full text).

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