Las Am?ricas

Free Trade

It used to be that the word “development” had two distinct connotations in Washington. The first had to do with raising money and peddling influence among the First World rich, as in “The development department raised $3 billion for the Rockefeller Foundation.”

The second meant putatively raising living standards for the Third World poor, as in, “Rapid development in Mexico has not addressed the serious malnutrition problem among children.” In 1990, however, the distinctions blurred when the latter type of development also became a project directly devoted to money-raising and money-making. The World Bank and the I.M.F. would manage access to this challenging new development market, according to an agreement they forged called “The Washington Consensus.” The Washington Consensus advocates first the privatization, then the deregulation, and finally the downsizing of the public sector in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Hence, the dramatic proliferation of promising new business opportunities. With the adoption of the Consensus, development acquired a slightly different dual meaning in our nation’s capital: bribing and bullying on the one hand and begging and peddling on the other.

This two-pronged approach would best be conducted through partners, by which the Consensus boosters meant elite First Worlders (bribing and bullying) operating together with rich Third Worlders (begging and peddling). One of the major semantic consequences of this group decision was that the word “partner” became a verb, as in “to partner.” If you use the word in a sentence, you get, for example, “The Inter-American Development Bank will partner with Home Depot to market the remaining Peruvian hardwoods in Japan.” Something like that. Or, “The World Bank, partnering with Olivetti and Microsoft, has automated secondary education for poor people in southern Chile.”

So. Here in Washington, most of the partnering is orchestrated by an amorphous organizational mass called Civil Society, which is often a little tricky to understand. Civil Society includes for example, General Electric, the P.T.A., the Mafia, Texaco, your daughter’s Brownie troop, and the AFL-CIO. As the happy result of streamlining government and democratizing public participation in official decision making, ground rules and playing fields in the competition for access and dollars are the level same for all. Here’s how it works.

It’s two-thirty in the afternoon high atop World Bank Headquarters at 19th and Pennsylvania, outside the temporarily-deserted President’s Conference Room. There sits Peter Hakim, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, waiting for the afternoon session of the meeting of Latin American Finance and Education Ministers to reconvene. According to itself, the Dialogue is the “premier center for policy ana-lysis and exchange on Western Hemisphere affairs.” And not just that. “The Dialogue’s select membership of one hundred distinguished citizens from throughout the Americas includes political, business, academic, media and other non-governmental leaders.”

Oh wow. Like Mr. Hakim, presumably, who now slouches deep in a plush easy chair at the end of the wood-paneled hall hung with the somber portraits of the Bank’s past presidents. Behind him is a spectacular view of downtown Washington, from the White House to the Capitol, but he is unimpressed because he’s about to get busy. On his cell phone, he tells his office, “I’m not getting back there this afternoon. I’m over here kissing every ass I can find.”

Without going far, Mr. Hakim can find an impressive number of asses around here. Many of them are trundling down the long hall to their places in the conference room, kissing each other as they go — the privileged international elite of Washington, and their guests from foreign parts. The Bank is putting on a show: Building Latin America’s Future: Public-Private Partnerships for Education. This afternoon’s matinee promises to be fascinating. The Honorable Ruth Richardson, former Finance Minister from New Zealand, will speak to the convened about her success in breaking a national teachers’ union. She has been dining out on this accomplishment in Washington’s international fiscal circles for about five years now — a long-running hit in a class with Les Misérables. Let’s take our seats and tune in our polyglottal headsets. We can pretend we’re part of the group because, don’t forget, we are Civil Society, too.

High above the assembled sit the anointed, looking for all the world like the Politburo. At the center is World Bank President James Wolfensohn, and next to him sits the New Zealand Minister. Her World-Bank-prepared bio tells us, “While Minister of Finance, The Hon. Ruth Richardson also initiated the redesign of New Zealand’s social policy, leading to major education reforms.” And how. Head thrust forward and jaw set, she begins.

You cannot cave in to a union, she tells these guys. Public school teachers are holding the whole world hostage — Canada and the U.S., too — with their mind-numbing insistence on steady wages and COLAs, their depressing job security and their extortionist pensions. But New Zealand busted it up. No one was going to make little Ruthie play and share with others and get away with it. If the union wouldn’t take the cheesy package that she offered, then the teachers could take a flying leap and she would help to shove them off. And that’s just what she did. Education costs the government less now in New Zealand. Meantime, The Honorable has become a private consultant, and the Bank has paid her handsomely for this afternoon’s inspiring performance.

Our Mr. Hakim sits plopped at the end of a long table under the portraits. The distinguished citizens from Hakim’s Dialogue and the desperate Latin American Finance Ministers are lapping up her wit and wisdom. Someone asks a tiresome question about how to handle long-term and unknown financial implications of collective bargaining agreements, and the Hon. Ruth answers as if she’s talking to a basketball team ten points back at half-time. Go back out there and kick some butt and there won’t be any collective bargaining agreements. Get it?

The proceedings resume, and by the time the curtain comes down, the Finance Ministers of Latin America are ready to go home and shoot it out with the schoolteachers if they have to. They have taken on fiscal crises, debt burdens, Fidel Castro, and the Shining Path. Pumped up by the World Bank and Ruthie, they should be able to handle a whining cadre of miserable, substandard middle-aged women and nuns who can’t do a decent job teaching arithmetic, for Christ’s sake.

Both the Dialogue and the Bank operate directively in underdeveloped countries. They are both staffed by experts, if you believe what they tell you. The Dialogue’s social policy work “focuses on how nations can reinvigorate public institutions and services and accelerate progress in the region.” The centerpiece of this work is the Dialogue’s education program, which it operates in Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and we’re not sure where else. Peru maybe. It’s not a new dilemma, but you can’t help wondering why none of the experts has been able to improve education for most people in the Americas despite the billions spent.

Good question. And the answer is that neither the Bank nor the Dialogue is really interested either in teachers or education. They are both interested in money and business. Which brings us to another question. Why, you might ask, does Mr. Peter Hakim, the President of a club of distinguished business and government leaders, have to hang around the World Bank, by his own admission, kissing asses?

Because that’s his business as a member of Civil Society and a Partner in Development. Partners like Mr. Hakim and the Inter-American Dialogue are an aggressively metastasizing outgrowth of our re-invented federal/corporate public sector. They are largely funded by government and transnational corporations, but they pretend to be representative of someone or something else — which they call non-government. And with their research, they can give an unpopular initiative a real boost. Let’s take a look at the funders of the Inter-American Dialogue, for example: The World Bank, The Inter-American Development Bank, U.S.A.I.D., the Canadian International Development Agency, the Organization of American States, the Government of Chile. Those are some of the public sector funders. Then there are the corporations: BankAmerica (Featuring the Investment Future Value Calculator and the Major Purchase Planner), Bell South International (Making the I.C.Q. chat-line more convenient), Xerox (Providing your strategic document outsourcing partner), and BP America (Sponsoring the BP Review of World Gas). Plus the big foundations: Ford, Kellogg, Tinker, MacArthur. If these people say that Latin American teachers have excessively large pensions, then they have excessively large pensions, by God. Would you argue with this line-up? I wouldn’t. I’d never work again.

As the government has reconfigured itself, this is what has taken shape: this plethora of well-heeled, Washington-based, policy-pushing N.G.O.s whose people move fluidly from private to public to profit to non-profit sectors. The whole thing is getting a little creepy. You think those nice-looking young people from Montana sitting next to you at the North-South Center Breakfast one rainy morning are interested in sustainable development and environmental law, the topic of today’s gathering. And they are, but it’s because they’re with a well-know environmental N.G.O. called The World Resources Institute, which is partnering with Dow Chemical and Monsanto.

The North-South Center, itself an N.G.O., partners with the World Bank, the Organization of American States, and United States Agency for International Development, Acon Investments, Qualcomm (Marketing the new “Thin Phone with the sleek design for phone and pager”), and the Cisneros Group of Companies (Representing Burger King Venezuela, Pizza Hut, Coca Cola, and Canada Dry). When asked, the N.-S.C. will tell you that it is “a nonpartisan, public policy and research institution.”

Washington, of course, has always attracted special interest projects and big fat pigs in pork barrels. It just seems to be much worse lately. The privatizing of public functions and agencies drained away whatever neutrality remained in any of the governments around here. But everyone agrees and everyone consents. Except maybe the lunatic fringe who just cannot catch on. But they don’t really matter because we have a Washington Consensus, as well as a North-South Dialogue. The choice of words is intriguing, isn’t it? The Banks and their Civil Society Partners are like some repressed Freudian patients unconsciously compelled to reveal the truth about their omissions and denials. For consensus is exactly what Washington does not have, and dialogue is precisely what has been extinguished by heavy-weight Civil Society Partners, who are not very collegial unless you’re in the club.

So how do you join the club, you wonder? Well, it’s simple. You will have to become directly attached to a World Bank potentate or a recent election purchaser. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly going to require kissing some asses, and some of you may not want to do that. Others will flatly refuse. Lamentably, this squeamishness is going to cost you your potential membership on the Blue Ribbon Bipartisan Emerging Local Leadership Council, as well as your invitation to participate in the International Commission on Private Partnerships for Cost Caps on Poor Persons’ Health Care. But then, this is what makes the Washington Consensus so special: everyone who might possibly disagree is simply left out.

Gabriela Bocagrande works in Washington, D.C., where she tries to avoid partnering ass-kissers.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST
Top