Last week Hilary Benn reacted to NGO campaigners’ demands for the reform of the World Bank by threatening that the UK would withold some of its financial contributions to the Bank. The problem is that the Bank places conditions on the loans it gives poor countries, forcing them to accept the privatisation of public services in return for the cash – this is something the UK government used to do, but it stopped after coming under pressure during the Make Poverty History campaign.
Benn’s threat came at the start of the Global Month of Action – an international campaign to put pressure on governments around the world – which automatically raised suspicions about his motivation. If he feels so stongly, why didn’t the government make this threat before? But what really got to some NGOs was the fact that Benn was only threatening to withhold £50million – out of a total contribution of £1.43billion. Hardly the most frightening threat that Paul Wolfowitz – head of the World Bank and former Bush adviser – has had to deal with.
NGOs got on their high horse and expressed amazement that Benn hadn’t gone further. But now Benn has got to take it in the other ear, after the World Bank hit back in quite extraordinary terms. The FT quotes a senior Bank advisor:
“Benn is revealing himself to be an ambitious political climber who misled his hungry press corps by tossing them some fictional red meat. He manufactured a non-crisis to score points in the UK by pretending to stand up to the Bank. It plays well in the party leadership race back home but has absolutely nothing to do with helping poor people who are starving or dying from preventable disease”.
A source close to Benn is quoted in the same story saying: “Conditionality has been one of his major concerns right from the beginning, and this announcement had nothing to do with whether or not he decides in the future to stand for the [Labour party] deputy leadership”.
Being slagged off by Paul Wolfowitz is hardly going to hurt Benn’s chances and it is interesting that the DFID source specifically mentions the deputy position rather than the leadership elections more generally…