Stranger in a Strange Land

U2's Bono as World Bank chief? Could be a neat idea. When a thought appears that says I have heard it all, invariably something comes along that forces me to rethink that. Today, it’s news that Bono, lead singer for the veteran rock band U2, is on the short list to become the new head of the World Bank.


Now, that news isn’t the stretch it might be — I mean, we’re not talking about, say, Britney Spears here. Bono is more than a rock god: He is a well-respected activist and advocate throughout the globe due to his efforts to secure economic justice around the world, to win debt relief for impoverished nations, and to battle the still-growing HIV-AIDS pandemic. The artist formerly known as Paul Hewson is taken so seriously he is on the nominees’ list for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Current World Bank chief James Wolfensohn will leave his post effective June 1. His replacement in all likelihood will be an American, given that the US — the bank’s biggest shareholder — traditionally chooses who leads the institution: There is much talk that ousted Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is a strong candidate for the job. But US Treasury Secretary John Snow said on ABC News program “This Week” that he wouldn’t rule out the Irish rocker as a potential successor to Wolfensohn. “He’s somebody I admire. He does a lot of good in this world of economic development,” Snow said. “Most people know him as a rock star. He’s in a way a rock star of the development world, too. He understands the give and take of development. He’s a very pragmatic, effective and idealistic person.”

If you’re hoping that the bombastic star will win this side gig, don’t hold your breath. Pragmatic or not, the idealistic Bono probably wouldn’t meld well with the priorities of the Bush Administration, which, to these eyes, values corporations and profit over people. He would be a real stranger in a strange land. Besides, U2 has a North American tour scheduled for fall 2005.

And whoever gets the job, let’s not forget that we’re talking about the World Bank here. As Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith wrote for the Progressive‘s Media Project, the bank — along with its cohort, the International MonetaryFund — is an institution eyed warily by many on the Left.

[The IMF and the World Bank] were established at the end of World War II to stabilize exchange rates and fund post-war reconstruction. But in the 1970s they took on radically different role: lending money to poor countries caught up in the debt crisis.

In exchange for loans, these countries are required to accept “structural adjustment” — conditionalities designed to encourage cheaper exports and attract foreign investors. This bureaucratic term means that countries have to hand over the economic reins to the IMF and World Bank. These institutions then use the reins to lash at workers.

The IMF-World Bank formula is to cut social benefits for workers and the poor, fire government employees, eliminate laws protecting labor, impose high interest rates that lead to mass unemployment, and devalue the currency — thus reducing real wages.

From the IMF and World Bank’s perspective, these policies are designed to encourage cheaper exports and attract foreign investors. When the IMF and World Bank “develop” the Third World using structural adjustment, they encourage the building of export platforms — maquiladoras and export processing zones — where multinational corporations can evade a country’s trade unions, wage laws and other social protections.

According to the Development Group for Alternative Policies, unemployment increased in nearly three-quarters of the 43 countries structurally adjusted by the IMF from 1978 to 1995. The real minimum wage is lower today than in 1980 in 17 of the 19 nations with IMF programs for which there are figures.

Starting in the early 1990s, similar conditions were imposed on Russia and formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe under the name “shock therapy.” In the late 1990s, they were also imposed on South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and the other victims of the Asian economic crisis. In Korea, for example, austerity conditions included devaluation, high interest rates and the firing of government employees. Unemployment tripled in the immediate aftermath.

These policies have a direct — and highly negative — impact on American workers. As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has pointed out, “Even with the economy growing, the U.S. lost more than 500,000 manufacturing jobs over the last 18 months as devastated countries tried to export their way out of trouble.” Approximately 12,000 jobs have been lost in the steel industry alone over the past year.

The World Bank/IMF path isn’t the way to real economic justice — what workers around the globe need is better conditions; wages that allow them to give their families decent, meaningful lives; empowerment; and a true sense that they and their contributions are valued. Bono might be the perfect person to head the World Bank, but he caresabout people. That renders him inappropriate for the position.

Coincidentally, Karama Neal’s terrific blog So What Can I Do? focuses on the documentary Life and Debt, which offers a critique of how the World Bank and the IMF are “destroying Jamaica’s economy in ways that simultaneously support, stabilize and encourage economic growth in countries like the US.” As part of her post, Neal presents a few ideas on how you and I, in our daily lives, can work for economic justice:

  • Buy local food and goods. Not only do you support your local economy, but you get fresher and better food.
  • Volunteer your time and skills with an organization that works toward economic and social justice.
  • Engage the media and hold them accountable for the stories they choose to present and the ways in which they present them.
  • Pay off your debts so you’ll have more money to support the causes that really matter and the organizations that make a difference.
  • Shop with a purpose for the things you need and support your favorite non-profit organization at the same time.
  • Invest responsibly so that your money is not used to increase economic disparities but instead is used to acheive economic justice.
  • Buy fair trade food and goods from companies that pay their workers a living wage and do not rely on sweatshops.
  • Live ethically and do the right thing even when it’s unpopular, uncommon, unexpected or inconvenient; make sure your lifestyle reflects your values.

Many of these are ideas we talk about quite often here — we call it living the kynd life. It really is important to, as Neal says, make sure one’s lifestyle reflects one’s values. We have to live in such a way that we promote justice for all in law, in life, in economic matters. We can’t expect governments and financial institutions to do it, after all. So get busy.

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