Friday, April 20, 2012

John Perkins Q&A

 With the new head of the World Bank to be voted on any day now and Dartmouth College president Jim Yong Kim poised to step into the role, here's my last Valley News story, an interview with author John Perkins.

   “Economic hit men” have been around since the 1950s, or so it's alleged, but the term didn’t enter the American lexicon until John Perkins’ 2004 book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Now, it’s widespread enough to warrant a definition in the Urban Dictionary: “Highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organizations into the coffers of huge corporations,” often at the expense of the world’s poor.
     John Perkins is a former economic hit man who gained notoriety for his New York Times bestseller and equally popular follow-up, The Secret History of the American Empire. But before he became a global-conspirator-turned-whistleblower, Perkins grew up in the Upper Valley, driving through snowstorms to catch shows at the Hop, spending summers at his grandmother’s house in Lebanon and cheering for Dartmouth at soccer matches. Born in Hanover and raised in Tilton, N.H., the 67-year-old author and activist has a cabin on Mascoma Lake and maintains close ties to the region.
      He also has a close connection to the World Bank, though his memories of “consulting” for it in the 1970s are less rosy. Today, with burgeoning economies like China, India and Brazil gaining power, with democratic uprisings in Latin America, the Middle East and even, in the form of the Occupy movement, the U.S., and with current World Bank president Robert Zoellick making room for a new leader — possibly Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim — Perkins believes that the World Bank is in a unique position. Instead of furthering United States’ corporate and political interests as it has in the past, Perkins says, a new president can return the institution to its original goals of diminishing poverty and improving global welfare.
      John Perkins spoke with the Valley News from his home in Washington state last week. The following is an edited transcript.
      Valley News: So how did you go from a teenager hanging around Hanover to consulting for the World Bank?
      John Perkins: I graduated from Middlebury College, (got my master’s) from Boston University, and from there I went in Peace Corps (in South America) for three years. My last year in Peace Corps, I was contacted by the senior vice president from the Boston consulting firm Chas T. Main and took a job with them, where I eventually became chief economist.
      That was my official title, but really my job was to convince heads of states from countries that had the resources we wanted, like oil, to accept huge loans from the World Bank and use that money to hire U.S. corporations to build infrastructure, power plants and industrial parks. These projects benefited our companies and a few wealthy families in those countries, but not the majority of people. The countries would be left holding huge debt to the World Bank or its affiliates that they couldn’t possibly repay.
     At some point we’d go back and say hey, since you can’t repay your debt, sell your oil to us cheaply. Vote with us in the next critical United Nations vote. Allow us to build a military base on your soil. Things like that.
      In the few cases where we failed, where the heads of state did not agree to this, we’d either overthrow governments or assassinate their leaders.
      VN: How would you sum up your criticism of the World Bank?
      JP: The World Bank was created out of the Bretton Woods conferences at the end of World War II with a very good mission: to reconstruct a devastated Europe. I think it did a good job of that. But soon after, the World Bank shifted its mission, unannounced, to fighting communism. It really devoted itself to helping big U.S. corporations and our form of capitalism embed itself in the Third World as a way to stop communism.
      This became an obsession. By the time I was an economic hit man, our major concerns were to (outcompete) communism and give American businesses like General Electric a foothold in the developing world. The World Bank moved from an organization dedicated to reconstructing the developing parts of the world to one that really became a cheerleader, a henchman for big corporations and the U.S. model of capitalism — a model I call predatory capitalism, (which) says the only goal of business is to maximize profits, regardless of the social or environmental costs. The World Bank became this henchman for that form of capitalism and has really been playing that role ever since.
      VN: Decades have passed since you quit your job as an economic hit man in 1980, and some of the stories you tell in your books have come under fire for their veracity. Do you still feel qualified to comment on the inner workings of the World Bank?
      JP: I do. I’ve kept pretty close track, and I spend a great deal of time traveling to the developing world. I’m the founder and on the board of a couple of nonprofits (Dream Change and the Pachamama Alliance). I continue to see (the things I describe in my books) happening.
      But I have tremendous hope. I think the World Bank has a great mission, one that we need badly. I pose this criticism not as a way to try to destroy the bank or its credibility, but as a way to point out that it has deviated from its true course and it needs to get back on course.
      I truly hope that the next president of the World Bank will take the reins and make that happen. It could be a very effective institution in helping rid the world of poverty and disease and all the other problems that often result in terrorism and bloodshed and civil wars.
      VN: So how much power does the president of the World Bank actually have, and how much power do economic hit men have?
      JP: It’s a combination. It’s not one or the other. When I would walk into a president’s office (of a country), I’d say hey, we want to make this huge loan to your country. If you accept, you and your cronies will become very wealthy. We’ll see to it that your children get full scholarships to U.S. universities. On the other hand, we say, if you don’t go along with this, just look at the record. Look at what happened to (Salvador) Allende in Chile, (Manuel) Zelaya in Honduras and (Mohammed) Mossadegh in Iran. If you go up against the system, you’re asking for trouble.
      The World Bank itself isn’t saying that, but there’s this vicious cycle that perpetuates corruption and the World Bank plays a role in it. I think it’s time to break that system. I think it’s time for a new president of the World Bank to come along and say this is not the way things should be. This is not serving the interests of my grandchildren.
      VN: And do you think that a new president of the World Bank has the power to turn things around?
      JP: I don’t think any one individual has the power totally turn things around, but I think the president of the World Bank is in a very good position to express these things and push very hard for them, and recognize that part of it is reaching out to people. If (we’re able to) get the message out, I think the American people are going to raise a hue and cry over it. We’ve seen through the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring that people are beginning to speak up, and that really does change systems.
      VN: What do you make of the idea that the presidency will always go to an American? Is it time for someone from the developing world to step up?
      JP: With all due respect to Dartmouth’s president, I think it would be wonderful to see someone from the developing world assume the presidency, (Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala) from Nigeria perhaps. It’s going to be very interesting to watch what happens next. The tradition is to pick someone from the U.S., and because we supported (Christine Lagarde) to take over the International Monetary Fund, Europe seems to be supporting us. But I think it would be beautiful move symbolically and in many other ways to have the presidency be turned over to someone from another country.
      VN: Do you think Jim Yong Kim, who has a background in health and humanitarian aid rather than finance, is a good candidate for head of the World Bank?
      JP: I don’t know enough about him personally to really comment on his credentials, but I don’t think you need someone in that position with a financial background. There are plenty of people around the president with financial backgrounds. You don’t need to be a financial analyst to run an organization, and I think that a background in health and education is very suitable.
      VN: Given what do you do know about Kim, how does he compare to the current president, former Goldman Sachs director Robert Zoellick? Does it bode well for the World Bank to have someone from outside the finance sector?
       JP: Absolutely. I think Goldman Sachs has far too much power as it is, and getting someone not connected with one of the big Wall Street firms is a real plus. If someone from the United States were chosen with a strong financial background, I’d love to see it be out of the university system and not out of Wall Street.
      VN: Kim has been both criticized and lauded for condemning the kind of blind growth that the World Bank has supported. In the book Dying for Growth, he wrote that, “The quest for growth in GDP and corporate profits has in fact worsened the lives of millions of women and men.” What’s your take on this? Do you think someone can head the World Bank and stick to those views?
      JP: I think it’s a sound view. I agree with that statement, that the sole quest of maximizing profits has been very detrimental, but as to whether he can do anything about that at the World Bank if he becomes president I think remains to be seen.
       VN: Many former World Bank employees see the bank as a far less poisonous and dangerous institution than you portray it to be. Do you think the bank has had any real successes? What kind of success is it capable of?
      JP: I talk in my book about a project in Panama. We gave out small loans in order to help small farmers build irrigation ditches and storage facilities and transportation facilities. I’ve also seen this happen with the fishing industry, where small loans can help fishermen build up a better fleet and better nets. So the World Bank has absolutely done some very, very good work. There’s no question of that, but there’s also this other side of the bank used for political reasons, to exploit countries.
      VN: So it should do more on the scale of microloans? Is there any specific direction you’d like to see the bank take?
      JP: It’s very country specific. In a country like Afghanistan, they need a lot of help dealing with land mines and victims of land mines. A country like Haiti needs to be built up from the terrible devastation of the (earthquake). Every country’s needs are a little different, but in each case I think you can find and develop projects that really reach the people at the bottom of economic pyramid.
      From ’70s up until the current time, the emphasis of the bank has been on projects at the top of the pyramid, projects that help the very rich of those countries and our own. Projects that reach people at the bottom of the pyramid have been few and far between. I’d like to see projects that reach the poorer people become the World Bank’s emphasis.
     VN: What advice would you give to the new World Bank president, whomever he or she turns out to be?
      JP: I’d say look to the original idea behind the World Bank, which was to help devastated places and suffering people to improve their lives. Work on helping the poorest of the poor pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Develop projects that allow the very poor to feed and clothe themselves and have better education and better health care and money set aside for retirement.
      VN: In your new book, Hoodwinked, you talk about a new form of global economics. What do you envision?
      JP: We have to realize that the system we created is a failure. Less than 5 percent of us live in the United States and we consume nearly 30 percent of the world’s resources. That’s not a model. That’s a failed system. It can’t be repeated in China and India and Africa and Latin America. These places might want to replicate that model, but they can’t. The numbers don’t add up.
      We must come up with a true model, a system that will work. I think the United States can be a leader in that, and I think the World Bank can be a leader.

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