CHARLES AND EVAN DID FOR SPRING BREAK
Charles Olbert and Evan Scott ran an unusual errand in early April: the two high school juniors made a special trip to the Army Navy Surplus store in their home town of Durham, North Carolina to buy gas masks.
The masks, along with other basic supplies, were part of their preparations for a trip to Washington D.C. This was not a typical school field trip.
Charles and Evan are part of a North Carolina student group called SURGE (Students United for a Responsible Global Environment).
SURGE joined other activists who plan peaceful protests coinciding with the April 16 spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and The World Bank.
The Washington DC Police Department also did a little shopping.
They bought a million dollars worth of extra supplies, including tear gas, riot gear, plastic bullets and gas masks.
Police officials say the supplies are just a precaution, in case the protests get too chaotic.
When a similar protest took place in Seattle last December, violence erupted. Downtown store windows were smashed and several hundred protesters were arrested, hundreds of others were sprayed with tear gas.
A BANK WITH NO TELLERS
So what exactly is everyone getting so excited about?
The IMF and The World Bank are international organizations that lend huge chunks of money (billions) to poor countries.
Both rich and poor countries are members of both organizations.
The IMF generally lends money to countries going through an economic crisis. Each of its 182 member countries contributes to the pool of funds. For example, when the Brazilian economy crashed in 1998, the IMF organized a "bail out" to help stabilize Brazil's currency.
When the World Bank was started in 1946 it collected contributions from its wealthier member countries. It reinvested a portion of this money in the world's capital markets to grow the fund from which loans are made. The World Bank, which has 181 members, loans close to $30 billion annually to many of its poorer member countries.
World Bank invests in countries to help them modernize. In general,
loans are given to build roads, develop industry and start education
The World Bank's slogan is "Our Dream is A World Free of Poverty."
THEY DON'T BUY IT
But Charles doesn't buy the slogan and he's heading to Washington DC to make it known.
"On the surface, the IMF and World Bank seem good," he says. "They appear like they're helping the economy of poor nations get going. But if you dig deeper, you realize all they do is hurt working people, damage the environment and help big corporations get richer."
Charles has spent a lot of time reading about the IMF and The World Bank on the net. He hangs out everywhere from new sites like CNN.com to radical anarchy sites.
Specifically, Charles objects to the terms of the IMF's economic recovery loans.
When the IMF lends money to a struggling country, they also specify what the country must do to shore up their economy and pay back the loan. These are called Structural Adjustment Programs or Economic Stabilization Programs.
Charles believes countries end up having to cut spending on things like education, health care and environmental protection and he feels the programs give rich nations too much control over the economies of poorer nations.
"These institutions just want their money paid pack," says Charles, referring to the IMF and World Bank. "For example, the IMF might pressure a nation to start producing cotton because it's a cash crop and it brings a high price when you export it. But if you use land for cotton in a country where people are starving, it just means you're producing less food locally and then you have to import food for even higher prices."
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DEBATE
The IMF says its programs are aimed at getting countries to adopt strategies that will help them succeed in a new global market place and build long term economic stability.
According to the IMF, there is no question of forcing a member to adopt any policy. The IMF says that what authority they do have is to require member countries to disclose information on certain economic policies and to avoid, as far as possible, putting restrictions on the flow of money in and out of their country.
The World Bank counters that it's a development institution whose goal is to reduce poverty by promoting sustainable economic growth in its client countries.
Development is about putting all the component parts in place - balanced economic and social programs, according to the World Bank.
"I think that people are worried about the future. I think they don't understand a lot of the big international institutions...we are ready to talk, and we have been ready to talk, we're very anxious to do it, and some of the mystery will go. But we are entering a new age of globalization, and I think there's a lot of fear," says James Wolfensohn, the president World Bank.
IS FREE TRADE FREE ?
The IMF believes that, in general, taxes and regulations on trade between all countries should be kept to a minimum or eliminated. This is referred to as "free trade".
Evan's concerns about the IMF center around free trade.
"There's an underlying conflict between free trade and the preservation of the environment, protection of the human rights and other social issues," says Evan. "Free trade means that countries that produce goods for the least amount of money succeed."
The cost of things like minimum wage laws and environmental regulations have to be met by governments and businesses. Evan says the free trade system will reward countries where factory workers earn very little money or governments fail to enforce environmental protections.
Those who favor free trade say it is the best basis for an international market economy. They say it's the most efficient way to bring together buyers and sellers.
BATTLE OF SEATTLE
None of these issues are simple-- that's why they've spurred protests.
Late last year, activists protested in Seattle against the policies of the World Trade Organization, another international group which supports free trade. The protests became a battle between police and demonstrators.
Charles and Evan say watching news footage of the "Battle of Seattle" piqued their interest in these global economic issues.
"It was a real turning point for me," says Evan. "Kids were getting gassed, the cops were in riot gear. Very few people here at school knew what it was about it."
The protesters in Seattle included activists from many backgrounds, including environmentalists, worker's rights groups and human rights advocates.
The media coverage of the chaos made people pay more attention to these global economic issues-- including Evan and Scott, who got together and started trying to educate other students.
UNITED WE STAND
Charles and Evan are part of a growing wave of student organizing.
Activism has gathered strength on college campuses over the past few years as groups have pressured school administrations and companies to boycott clothes produced in oppressive factories, sometimes called sweatshops, where workers are not paid a decent hourly wage or are forced to work in unsafe conditions.
Now, the activist spirit is being felt in high schools.
The International Student Activism Alliance, a new high school group which promotes peaceful protest, already has 160 chapters and thousands of members.
STARC (the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations) launched just five months ago already has 2,000 members from both high schools and colleges. They also advocate peaceful means of getting one's point across.
Groups like these have organized at lightning speed with the help of the Internet Their causes differ-- ranging from anti-sweat shop campaigns, to gay rights to environmental concerns-- but they're linked by a desire to be a force for positive social change.
STAND AND BE COUNTED
SURGE, the student group Charles and Evan are part of, has chartered three buses to join the East Coast caravan to Washington DC
Charles says he's excited about being part of the action- but he's not planning to be in the front lines.
"This is a magnet school so if you get in any trouble at all, they can kick you out," he says.
And Evan says even if he doesn't wind up in a cloud of tear gas this weekend, he's already found a use for his gas mask.
"I used it in a photo project about environmental pollution . . . and the mask is also just pretty entertaining."
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