Las Americas

Poverty on the Block


Washington, D.C.

Here we are at the World Bank’s “Development Marketplace.” This is so cool. For two days, the Bank has fitted out its palatial thirteen-story atrium to look like a combination game show, flea market, and grade-school science fair.

Each eye-catching kiosk displays a small-scale, grassroots development project competing for World Bank money. Three hundred eager entrepreneurs from around the globe have flown themselves, their posters, photos, pamphlets, and gee-gaws into Washington and set up their wares here. Many of them are cleverly wearing native dress, hoping their exotic fashions will catch the eye of the project judges. If they are successful, they will win a grant from the $5 million pool made available by the Bank to “combat poverty.”

That’s what the Bank is doing these days, you know. At the front door of the main building, in fact, is the statement of the World Bank’s core mission: “Combating poverty with passion and professionalism.” But, unfortunately, without results. And as we tour the displays here in the Great Hall this morning, we will see why. But in the meantime, if you have a catchy idea for coping with fiscal crises, surviving a natural disaster, or turning child ex-combatants into income-generating peddlers, come on down. You may already be a winner.

Except that instead of Monty Hall or Ed McMahon, we have James Wolfensohn — Wall Street financier, international philanthropist, and World Bank President — presiding. Early on the first day of the fair, he tours the pitiful stalls with his entourage. The Bank has deployed its photographers all over the place to snap candids of Mr. Wolfensohn shaking hands with supplicants from the former colonies, all of whom point and gesture ingratiatingly at their displays.

The Bank has billed this thing as a “search for solutions together,” but it actually looks more like The Third World Gong Show. The P.R. office tells us, “The Development Marketplace is to stimulate innovation within the development community in the fight against poverty.” If, however, you are serious about winning any money from the World Bank for your imaginative grassroots approach to the problem of 2 billion poor people, you are going to have to look and act like a gypsy beggar. Those are the rules. How fun. In order to do this, you will need certain entrepreneurial skills, and you will have to be completely shameless and willing to humiliate yourself utterly. For example, you might dress up like an Inca midwife, mount a display of your birthing equipment, and then stand by your stall, chattering with passersby, waving a string of chiles or something else colorful and herbal, and beseeching judges to listen to your spiel. You will know who the judges are because most of them are Bank employees, and this means that they are acting snotty and wearing expensive clothes — unlike you, or the lady at the next stall, who seems to have wound herself into a turban and dressed up in a shower curtain.

There are a number of awards up for grabs. First of course, are the cash prizes of around $150,000. These are highly coveted and relentlessly sought. There will be about forty of them for the most innovative development ideas in such areas as “Tackling Taboos,” and “Communications in Action.” Then there are the infoDev awards (, to “promote innovative projects on the use of information and communications technologies (I.C.T.s) for economic and social development with special emphasis on the needs of the poor in developing countries.” Here’s an example of these creative projects, which Bank President Wolfensohn is fond of citing. Suppose an entrepreneur in Ethiopia uses the World Wide Web to contact Ethiopian taxi drivers in the United States and sell them goats, which are delivered to their families in Ethiopia. Goats, Mr. Wolfensohn explains, are a traditional form of saving in Ethiopia. Cool. And innovative, too. But wait, if you’re still saving up goats, while a nearby entrepreneur is contacting your relatives in the United States on the www, you are probably just about to lose completely out. Unless you have two Dixie cups and a very long string to contact your relative and make sure that he paid only for the one goat you actually received from the entrepreneur, instead of the three goats that your relative thought he was sending.

Well, so maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. Never mind. We have others here. Some are winners and some are not. For example, there’s the “Love Boat” proposal from Myanmar, which will chug down the Who-Knows-What River selling low-cost latex condoms. Unfortunately, the Love Boat contestants did not win anything and were obliged to return to wherever they came from with nothing but parting gifts. But the Roundabout Outdoor H.I.V./AIDS Initiative got $165,000. This innovative project will construct special merry-go-rounds for playgrounds in slums, so that the energy of poor children, which is normally wasted on pointless activity such as kicking soccer balls, can be harnessed to pump water. Plus, the merry-go-round will display AIDS awareness messages.

Similarly, the “Female Genital Cutting” project won $150,000, and will teach people who perform these operations to develop alternative business skills and go into another line of work. The title of this project, however, is slightly confusing, and alarming to occupants of the surrounding stalls, who are not quite sure whose genitals are getting cut. After reassuring them, we suggest partnering this project with the Love Boat and the HIV Roundabout. After all, if you can keep your genitals intact, you might be needing some condoms to protect yourself from (a) producing an excessive number of water pumpers, or (b) contracting H.I.V.

Then there is the “Building Low-Cost Wheelchairs in Gaza” project. Presumably, the chairs are for those unfortunates who have had their legs shot off by high-cost, long-range tanks and rifles in Gaza. Next to wheelchair stall is the Afri-Bike idea, which will provide selected colored people with used bicycles at low interest rates. The advocates of this innovation expect to combat poverty with bikes because they conducted a study which proves that people in Africa with bicycles make 50 percent more money than people without them. There may be a mix-up with cause and effect here, the judges wisely point out. After all, people in Africa with airplanes have thousands of times the income of people without them, but this doesn’t mean that we should get everyone a used airplane, now, does it?

In general, disabled people seem to be in style this year — highly eligible for the grassroots projects awards. They are getting special computers in Guatemala, new investments in Peru, and targeted training for urban livelihoods somewhere else. A creative (i.e., cheap) approach to manufacturing prostheses for land mine victims in Central America is very popular. It wins the “People’s Choice” prize, awarded by the other competitors, who vote for their favorite project by attaching their ration of festive blue and white balloons to the selected project stall. This does not mean that the plastic leg manufacturers get money, however. Instead, the World Bank pays for them to attend the ten-day course of their choice — at the Bank. They may choose among course topics such as “Global Integration — The New Trade Agenda,” “Controlling Corruption — An Integrated Strategy,” “Managing Capital Flows in a Volatile Environment,” and much, much more.

As always, poor rural women are very big — they get literacy projects and small loans so they can raise pigs or sell empanadas to bus passengers. Village banking schemes for women are also very in, so that the lucky beneficiaries, who are chopping firewood, hauling water, rearing children, raising food, and building houses, can start a small business in their spare time. But that’s not very innovative any more. Actually, we’re all kind of bored with that and need to think up something new. Like for example, the “Reduce Mosquito Bites in Rwanda” project, which proposes to distribute better netting to refugee camps. More to the point for Rwanda would be the “Stop Cutting Tutsis in Half” project, but that would probably be more expensive.

Expensive. That’s key. Because if you do the math, you will see that the $5 million dropped into the palms of the beggars in the atrium is just about 0.00025 percent of the $20 billion in loans and grants that the Bank hands out each year. So what’s happening with the other 99.99975 percent of the money? To find that out, we will have to go upstairs, away from the microphones, the photographers and the Washington Post, and check in with the task managers and loan officers. But they’re not nearly so happy to see us as the Development Marketplace Team was: they’re not handing out pamphlets or warmly inviting us to sit down and chat. They’re busy, busy, busy.

One office is extremely occupied. It is guiding the “Health Sector Reform in El Salvador” project through its pre-implementation stages. This project proposes to downsize and deregulate the Salvadoran public health system with a $26 million loan package. If all goes as planned, the Bank will privatize health care in two pilot regions by introducing an H.M.O. framework so that consumers may choose their favorite form of disease prevention and treatment. The approach seems a bit askew, as more than 60 percent of the residents in these regions are officially poor and will not be able to pay any premiums. Nor can they sort through the competing H.M.O.’s propaganda, or get in their cars to shop around for a preferred provider. In the privatization process, 30,000 public health workers, who have never been consulted about any of this, may lose their jobs. And when Social Security workers went out on strike to protest privatization of medical services there, 211 strikers were summarily fired, most of them labor leaders. Meanwhile, Bank officials, combating poverty with passion and professionalism, took advantage of the strike to forge ahead with the privatization and deregulation package.

Throughout the Bank, and its regional franchises like the Inter-American Development Bank, this is the standard practice. The people affected by the big money operations are never consulted. However, the Bank tells us, in this new day of openness and transparency, the unlucky “target population” is always informed about what is about to happen with just enough time to get out of the way. The targets are grateful for this. It is a big improvement. Ten years ago, poor people would still be living in their shacks on the riverbank when the bulldozers moved in to make the brand new lake they were about to need.

But back downstairs at the fair, the show goes on. We have a new winner — the Disaster Survival Barrel, which will be made of lightweight, low-cost aluminum and manufactured locally in godforsaken flood plains and lava fields, so that when disaster strikes — as it is sure to do — victims will not have to travel far to pick up their barrels. The survival barrel providers inform us, however, that these devices contain no food, fuel or shelter materials, as these materials are all readily available in your typical disasters. The barrel does contain: a lantern, a small blackboard, emergency flares, chalk, and a ball. Also a sewing kit. This is obviously well thought out. You can first repair those unsightly holes in your trousers that you got sliding down the mountain in the avalanche and then entertain yourself until help arrives by playing hangman on your chalkboard and practicing your curveball. And when it gets dark, you could light your lantern, except that your innovative survival barrel contains no fuel. Good thing they thought to include the emergency flares. If this keeps up, you are going to need them.

Gabriela Bocagrande observes the international politics bizarre from her acerbic perch in Washington, D.C.