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The sky at Dubai

(Article published in the Sep 29,2003 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

The sky was hazy that morning of Tuesday, 23 September, the start of the 2003 Annual Meetings of the Boards of Governors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.  And it was not because of the desert sand that seemed to slowly float upwards from the scorched ground to crowd some more the already sand-packed clouds that conceded not an inch of blue.

Barely 5 hours after United Emirates Airlines Flight 333 touched down before dawn at the Dubai International Airport, members of the Philippine delegation, weary and bleary from nightlong travel, were greeted by the Gulf News, a broad sheet read widely in the regions of the Persian Gulf with a long article, by-lined by a local Arab, on how the governments of female heads of state are jeopardized by “foolish husbands.” No need to name who the centerpiece was.

At the sumptuous evening cocktails hosted by JP Morgan on Sunday at the Shangri-la Hotel, one banker after another banker asked how, not the Governor but more, the Bangko Sentral would cope with the undermining impact of a seemingly chronic situation where court litigation could threaten the effectivity of its decisiveness.

And in the various company and country presentations, there were the repeated questions on the coming elections, the looming changes in people and policy that inevitably follow changes of administration, the budget deficit, etc.

But the desert, despite stretches of monotony going into the horizon, did have some hidden surprises.  In mid-morning of the following day, which the twin-institutions of Bretton Woods allocated to what they called annual discussions, featuring short speeches from the various governors of the constituent countries, our Finance Secretary, Jose Isidro Camacho, took to the podium.

Camacho raised four points.  First was the issue of conceding more voice to the developing and transition economies in the decision-making process of the two institutions.  This was not new.  It was a common battle cry of leaders of the third world that has been gathering momentum recently.  

The second dealt with the incongruence of a basic global drive for “an open, equitable, rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory multilateral trading and financial system” with a trading agenda that is driven by narrow interests of certain sectors in the developed countries.  The finance secretary pointed out that the country had hewn to the idea of trade liberalization at the sacrifice of much-needed revenues and complained that trade agenda of development countries undermined those lofty principles.  That too was not new.  The stand-off at Cancun during the last WTO summit had already brought home that message.

Third, he called for fiscal packages for middle income countries to enable them to pursue their development agenda.  He expressed concern over the decisions that tend to redirect resources from middle-income countries to low-income countries, to the prejudice of the poor of the former.  He thus articulated an oft-repeated rhetorical question, “how different is a starving and homeless person living in a middle income country from a starving and homeless citizen of a very poor and low income country?”

But the fourth issue was where Camacho stood alone and proudly.  He submitted that multinational financial institutions must be “less preachers and be more problem solvers.”  “We are bombarded,” he complained, “with diagnostics of our problems and deficiencies.”  But, he pointed out, “for the most part, we, the authorities already know these problems and deficiencies.  We are there on the ground to face the hungry, the homeless, the uneducated, and the unemployed members of our society.  We do need to be constantly reminded of our problems because we face them everyday.  We need to be aided and guided to find practical solutions to the problems.”

There was strong applause when the Secretary finished his statement.  It was as if he articulated a feeling shared by the developing countries, a feeling that they did not have the courage to express themselves.  At least one member of the audience heard the Secretary. Horst Koehler, managing director of the IMF, in his summation of the statements, remarked that Camacho must have been referring to the IMF.

When the delegates filed out of the plenary hall, many got hold of the October issue of the internationally read Global Finance.  That magazine  traditionally comes out with its rating of central bankers world-wide in time for the Annual Meetings of the IMF and the World Bank.

Says the prestigious magazine: “A veteran A-grader, the Philippines’ Rafael Buenaventura stands out yet again this year.  It is not just hand on the tiller of a troubled economy that marks him out; it’s that he is continuing to perform a remarkable job even when appealing a one-year suspension handed down by a Philippine court of appeal.”

“Against enormous odds,” Global Finance continues, “he has helped create an economy with steady GDP growth of around 5% in a low-inflation, low-interest rate environment.  If his suspension is upheld, he will be sorely missed.”

It was along a corridor of light that United Arab Emirates Flight No. 334 streaked out of the Dubai International Airport on 25 September, in an 8-hour chase of sun that had had 4 hours of head start, to the land of foolish husbands, pesky lawsuits and peskier politicians.