Dispatch from Bali: Saying It Loud and Clear

Writing from the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings in Bali, our executive director Priyanthi Fernando reflects on two very different perspectives on the state of today’s world.

In Christine Lagarde’s curtain raiser speech for the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings being held this week in Bali, the message is that the sun is shining on the world economy, though there are a few clouds gathering which require the roof to be repaired to deal with the impending storm. Sitting here at the IBIS Styles hotel, anticipating this afternoon’s orientation to the CSO Forum, I am thinking that for civil society in countries of the Global South the metaphorical sun is certainly not shining, the storm is raging and the roof is beyond repair – it has been blown away!

If we just take the ASEAN region where IWRAW Asia Pacific is located, in Cambodia a law on associations and non-governmental organisations is restricting the activities of civil society organisations, and in Laos, all civil society activity requires supervision and oversight by the state. There are also instances of arbitrary detention and mobility control, as in the imprisoning of land-grab protesters in Cambodia, or in Vietnam’s denial of entry visas to foreign human rights activists. In addition, corporations are using their power to restrain the voices of civil society. We saw Samsung threaten the NGOs which published a critical review of the unsafe working conditions in Samsung factories. In the Philippines, indigenous peoples’ rights activist Joan Carling was the subject of a smear campaign that leaves her fearful to return to her country. And even at the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings here in Bali, the bus taking me to my hotel had a police escort, and the Indonesian government is clamping down on peaceful protests organised by civil society.

There are other aspects of the speech that need some unpacking – given that it seems to say the right things!

Fixing the global trade system, and building better. Sure, but will the ‘better system’ take into account the inequalities and historic disadvantages of countries (e.g. the weaker economies in ASEAN), or of groups within countries (e.g. women)?

Fairer policies to balance work and family. Surely it is about more than just parental leave, high-quality childcare and tax systems that don’t penalise second earners. If the policies are to benefit all women everywhere, they must be about dismantling the patriarchal stereotype of women’s roles in the family and distributing care responsibilities between women and men. It’s about providing not just high-quality childcare, but childcare that is affordable to everyone, which suggests state rather than market provision. And tax systems must not just stop penalising second earners, but also be able to generate revenue to provide public services to citizens and enable the state to meet its human rights obligations.

The speech says very little about climate change, which is worrying given that there are concerns about the World Bank and International Finance Corporation ignoring their own safeguards and supporting dodgy energy investments.

And the call for a ‘new multilateralism’ is pretty insular. It reads ‘multilateralism’ as being limited to the international financial institutions and ignores the existence of the ‘multilateralism’ of the United Nations. It would be best if the IMF and World Bank group heeded the advice of the UN Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, and integrated a human rights perspective into their operations. As it is, state parties that have signed up to the 2030 Agenda, and are obligated by their ratification of many international treaties to protect and fulfill human rights, are left to deal with the irreconcilable contradictions that the two systems present. This change can take place if the IMF does, indeed, have a human face. Guess that’s what I am here to find out.

Read Priyanthi’s follow-up post, Post-Bali Reflections: The Insider Strategy.

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