Bankers stuck in Congress Centre debate debt relief

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While the streets around Prague's Congress Centre witnessed violent clashes, World Bank and IMF delegates on the other side of the barricades were doing their best to carry on as normal, only catching glimpses of the fighting through windows and from the balconies of the Centre. The official IMF and World Bank meeting began on Tuesday morning, addressed by Czech President Havel, and the chiefs of both organizations. Their talks covered several of the issues that have fired the passions of protestors, and many delegates have given a nod of acknowledgement to the protestors, that both organizations have made serious mistakes in the past and need reform. But their primary message, that financial stability and sustainable growth are crucial to poverty reduction in the world, remains the same; what they have been willing to discuss is reform and adaptation to new conditions. Vladimir Tax was in the Congress Centre for the first day of discussions:

The managing director of the IMF, Hoerst Koehler, regarded as a reformer, outlined his vision of the IMF's role in the post-Cold War, globalising world. In his speech he argued that the IMF should promote non-inflationary economic growth that benefits all people of the world, guarantee the stability of the financial system, cooperate closely with other global institutions and, perhaps most importantly, be open to learn from experience and dialogue and be able to adapt to changing circumstances.

But Mr Koehler was adamant that if the IMF did not exist now would be the time to invent it, because more than ever, globalisation requires cooperation and accountable institutions to coordinate this cooperation.

Mr Koehler also spoke about the IMF's much-criticized lending programs. He agreed that such programs do not offer ideal solutions, and that there should be greater focus on crisis prevention.

On the part of the World Bank, its president, James Wolfensohn, also went out of his way to appease protestors, pointing to poverty and inequality as the main threats to peace in the world, and fighting them as the main task. Both Mr Wolfensohn and Mr Koehler called for progress in granting debt relief to the world's forty poorest countries and for a more than two-fold increase in contributions to the IMF and World Bank programs from the OECD countries.

In a reaction to calls for internal reform, Mr Wolfensohn argued that the World Bank has already begun to change radically. He said it was now far more transparent and efficient, while expanding to new areas, such as post-conflict situations, AIDS, anti-corruption, biodiversity and climate change. He stressed though that one of the main goals remains fighting poverty in middle-income countries, where one billion people live on less than 2 dollars per day.

So, ostensibly, both the protesters and the World Bank seem to have a common goal: poverty reduction. The activists have clearly demonstrated what they think of the session. Now, how do the delegates perceive the protests? Here is the chairman of the boards of governors of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group, Trevor Manuel, the South African finance minister: