By Walden Bello and Shalmali Guttal

When President Tadao Chino of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) came down to meet representatives of the over 1000 protesters that had gathered in front of the Honolulu Convention Center o­n Wednesday, May 9, the move was a major victory for opponents of the Manila-based agency. For years, the ADB president had refused to meet critics of the ADB in a public, transparent situation. During the Bank’s annual meeting in Chiang Mai last year, ADB staff had gone to considerable lengths to prevent such an occurrence, and they were prepared to stonewall us again at this year’s meeting.

But the ADB’s 34th Annual General Meeting (AGM) created tremendous controversy in Hawaii for a number of reasons. For a start, there is the history of US imperialism and colonialism, which, according to local organizers, has made Hawaii the most, militarized piece of earth in the world. Through a combination of brainwashing, economic dependency and old fashioned repression, US authorities have done their best to contain indigenous and local Hawaiians’ struggles for sovereignty and self determination. What a site for the annual meeting of an institution that claims to advance the interests of the poor and under-privileged! Despite Hawaii’s distance from most anywhere in Asia, the 34th AGM attracted critics from across the Asia-Pacific and North America and served as a coalescing point for anti-globalisation protesters who very effectively linked traditional US imperialism with the market capitalism promoted by institutions such as the ADB.

A Captive Audience

President Chino expected a perfunctory meeting, in which the civil society delegation would hand him a petition and he would scamper back to the safety of the convention center and his retinue of assistants. What he did not expect was that Ms Dawan would not release his hand o­nce he had offered it to her in a handshake. Her firm but gentle grip allowed Dr. Bello to read aloud the collectively written petition to a captive Chino for the next 15 minutes. And despite the demands of Chino’s assistants that the police break up the meeting–since the ADB president had come to receive a written petition, not to hear it read aloud to him–the police were pretty much unable to do anything.

The statement, signed by 50 non-governmental and people’s organizations from throughout the Asia Pacific region, read in part:

“The Asian Development Bank…is an institution that is now widely recognized as having imposed tremendous sufferings o­n the peoples of the Asia-Pacific. In the name of development, its projects and programs have destroyed the livelihoods of people, brought about the disintegration of local and indigenous communities, promoted the sharp rise of inequality, deepened poverty, and destabilized the environment.

We, representatives of peoples, communities, and organizations throughout the region, have had enough of this destruction in the name of development. We have had enough of an arrogant institution that is o­ne of the most non-transparent, undemocratic, and unaccountable organizations in existence.

The people of the region want the ADB out of their lives…and yield the space for others to promote alternative strategies of development that truly serve the people’s interests.”

The petition specifically demanded the cancellation of four controversial projects: the Samut Prakarn Wastewater Management Project in Thailand, which threatens irreparable damage to a sensitive coastal ecosystem and is ridden with corruption; the Cordillera Highland Agricultural Resource Management Project in the Philippines (Charm), which is undermining traditional community-based farming by encouraging cash-cropping; the Chashma Right Bank Irrigation Project in Pakistan, which involves involuntary resettlement of villagers; and the Sri Lanka Water Resource Management project, which threatens serious ecological disruption to affected communities.

Small Victory

The 15-minute long airing of peoples’ demands was a small victory for transparency, but that it will result in cancellation of controversial projects, or changes in the ADB’s non-transparent decision-making structures is unlikely. All Chino could promise o­nce Dawan gently released his hand was the same old mantra that ADB officials have been reciting to critics for years: “your views will be taken into account.”

The meeting with Chino was the highpoint of a rally that saw the participation of some 1500 people, who marched from Magic Island, through the famous Waikiki Beach area, to Ala Moana Park. Despite police and media warnings about the potential for violence instigated by “external agitators,” the events of May 9 were peaceful, though militant. The Honolulu police had spent from US$ 4 to US$ 7 million to upgrade its coercive capacities for the protests in response to the ADB’s request for protection. The security syndrome pretty much took over in the weeks leading up to the conference, leading ADB officials themselves to complain that (in the words of a senior staff member) “the US neglected substantive preparations for the event.” Indeed, except for events and programs related to dealing with NGOs and people’s movements, the substantive agenda of the 34th AGM was remarkably thin, consisting largely of vague declarations regarding the non-functioning Asian Currency Arrangement.

The success of the protest march was due in great part to the work of ADB Watch, a local coalition of indigenous, peace, social justice, and environmental groups. In addition to the march, the coalition organized a conference o­n indigenous rights and struggles, a teach-in o­n globalization coordinated with the International Forum o­n Globalization (IFG), a seminar o­n globalisation and militarisation, and a two-day series of talks, “Voices of the South,” featuring speakers from across Asia and the Pacific. Observers remarked that the participation of native peoples and the theme of native people’s rights distinguished the mobilization against the 34th ADB AGM from previous protests. Indeed, about half of the participants in the May 9 march were native Hawaiians, and a prominent theme in the weeklong anti-ADB events was protest against the US’s destruction of their national sovereignty.

Poor Judgment

The protesters in Honolulu–both Hawaiian and non Hawaiians were also reacting to a growing trend that the ADB’s 34th AGM symbolized: the refashioning of our cities and towns to become meeting sites for the institutions of global capitalism. Hawaii State and Honolulu City authorities were emphatic that the 34th AGM would serve to showcase Hawaii as the “Geneva of the Pacific.” They see an enormously lucrative future in being able to host international meetings and summits organized by institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. All the more reason for them to ensure that o­ne way or another, the Aloha spirit would prevail during the ADB meetings, if not through willing acceptance by local residents, then through beefed-up security measures and repressive ordinances. In the words of a prominent local resident, the ADB’s AGM was part of a longer-term vision “to make Hawaii a safe place for global pariahs to meet.”

Hawaii, with its decades-long history of military build up and its relative geographic isolation must appear a particularly appropriate candidate for a future global convention centre. It is the home of the US Pacific Fleet and has over 50 surveillance stations tracking ship movements from Peru to Madagascar. Different parts of the islands serve as storage areas for nuclear and biological weapons, incineration sites for weapons disposal, sites for bombing exercises, and training areas for tropical mountain and jungle combats. Not o­nly has land been appropriated from native and other local residents in the name of “national security,” but also, parts of the islands have experienced widespread environmental destruction and contamination as a result of military exercises and storage. And to protect this military pearl, US authorities have ensured an adequate supply of security personnel around the clock.

Not surprisingly, many local residents were bitter about the future implications of holding the ADB’s 34th AGM in Honolulu. According to a local community organizer, “Hawaii is already a safe place for the military to be. Now we see all the institutions of finance capital coming in to the same point that is a military stronghold, using the same military structure to control the public and resulting in even more militarisation as with the ADB AGM.”

Given Hawaii’s historical particularities, the ADB management displayed remarkably poor judgment and ineptitude in dealing with the range of sensitive issues that cropped up both before and during the AGM. At the forefront of these were public outrage at the huge costs of providing security for the AGM and at the special measures taken by local security authorities to ensure that the AGM went off smoothly at any cost. President Chino’s brief adventure with the masses outside the Convention Centre was perhaps the o­nly prudent move that the organization took in its attempts at damage control.

Non-Transparent Governance

The ADB prides itself for being the first multilateral lending agency to have a Board-approved policy statement o­n good governance, which it defines as governance marked by “accountability, participation, predictability, and transparency.” Many Bank staff members are, however, extremely cynical about the new policy. o­ne senior person we interviewed said: “It’s a question of practicing what you preach. There’s a lot of discontent inside the Bank, precisely because it is o­ne of the most non-accountable. non-participatory, and non-transparent institutions around.”

As an example, she pointed to informal rules that reserve certain positions to the dominant countries, in particular the US and Japan. The US speaks loudest when it comes to good governance, but it considers key positions in the Bank “its private property, and no talk about democracy and transparency will change that.” A good case in the position of the General Counsel of the Bank. The US has locked up this position, an attitude that has brought it criticism from the Board for “lack of transparency.” Mindful of the criticism, the US last year pushed to have a US citizen continue to fill the post, but chose an American citizen from Hawaii with a Japanese name.

Japan is equally non-transparent in its relationship to the ADB. Japan’s Ministry of Finance (MOF) determines who will be president — Chino is a graduate of the MOF– and who will fill the key position of head of Budget and Staffing. This has had detrimental consequences for innovation. o­ne is ideological: the MOF is probably the most conservative of Japan’s economic agencies. The other is structural: the chief of Budget and Staffing, for instance, is replaced every three years by the MOF and according to a member of the Bank’s Executive Board who we interviewed, “which means that the occupant has little incentive to innovate and all the incentive to carry o­n as usual.”

Ironically, Japanese control of the Bank has not resulted in the adoption of the bottom-up, participatory management that Japanese firms are noted for. Instead, the ADB has reproduced the over-centralized, hierarchical structures of the MOF, with hiring of the lowliest programmer for a small project and travel outside the Asia-Pacific region by any Bank staff needing the personal approval of the president. “Hierarchy is everywhere; quality control is nowhere,” said o­ne senior informant. “This is, let’s face it, a mediocre organization.”

The Threat from Civil Society

The 34th AGM underlined the reality that the days when the ADB could pretty much ignore peoples’ movements and civil society organizations (CSOs) are pretty much over. The institution is getting more and more defensive as more and more damning facts come into public view. A recent internal evaluation of a sample of ADB projects in 1998 and 1999 showed that close to 70 per cent of ADB projects are not sustainable. A report to the Bank’s donors admitted that although the ADB boasts of poverty reduction being its “overarching vision and goal,” the fact of the matter is that “few projects have been designed specifically to address this objective,” and that “there has been little lending directly targeted at women or the environment.”

In addition to project lending, “structural adjustment lending,” which seeks to transform economies across the board in the direction of greater market freedom, has also come under criticism internally. o­ne key review decries the “proliferation of policy conditionalities” or measures promoting liberalization, deregulation, and privatization, noting that the average number of conditionalities per program loan is 32! Practically admitting the failure of the Bank’s conditionality-burdened program lending, the document states that “besides the issue of proliferation of conditionalities is the more basic issue of the efficacy of the policy conditionality approach.”

With the ADB no longer able to dismiss the scrutiny and demands of civil society, reform was o­ne of the notes sounded at the Honolulu meeting. Whether anything will come out of this institutional breast-beating remains to be seen. But as the alternative events and protests that accompanied the annual meeting underlined, CSOs and people’s organizations are determined to keep up the pressure o­n the ADB.


*Walden Bello and Shalmali Guttal attended the ADB Annual Meetings in Honolulu for Focus o­n the Global South, [email protected] and [email protected]