First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
"Religion of the World Bank"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore February 24, 2002


We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Sounds a little like globalization doesn't it or does it?

Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have long been known for our interest in promoting more harmonious international relations. We appreciate the diversity of cultures and religions and draw inspiration, insight and stimulation through the exploration of different traditions. We desire that the myriad peoples of the world find peace, their relations be conducted fairly and all have the liberty to create meaningful and productive lives.

This sounds a little like globalization but actually turns out to be the opposite of where the world is headed right now, particularly for those with few or no resources. A recognition of something being radically wrong with the cheery advance of globalization has stimulated the selection of it as our Study/Action Issue at last summer's Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly. Its selection begins a two year process. The first year all the member congregations are asked to study the issue. We may then propose suggestions for how to frame this issue into a "statement of conscience" which will be proposed at this summer's GA. We'll get this proposed language back next fall and have a chance to do our own wordsmithing and send back our edits. These modifications are reviewed and combined into a final statement of conscience. That statement will be proposed, amended and passed or rejected at the GA in 2003 and become part of our religious identity as an association of congregations.

After the service today, please join me in Stott Lounge to discuss globalization. We'll do the first phase of this process of giving our input and suggestions. Next fall the Social Responsibility Committee and the Denominational Affairs Committee are planning to work together to expand this process. Watch for more details in the fall.

A good way to get a handle on the huge topic of globalization is to analyze, briefly, one of the primary institutions that supports it: the World Bank. The World Bank, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization form the superstructure of globalization. The International Monetary Fund stabilizes currencies, the World Trade Organization sets the rules for international trade, and the World Bank assists developing nations to participate in the global marketplace.

They were the result of a meeting by leaders from 43 countries in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire in the summer of 1944. Their aims were to help rebuild the shattered postwar economy and to promote international economic cooperation. Led by US Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau, chief economic advisor Harry Dexter White and British economist John Maynard Keynes, they wanted to establish a postwar economic order based on notions of consensual decision-making and cooperation in the realm of trade and economic relations. The leaders of the Allied countries felt that a multilateral framework was needed to overcome the destabilizing effects of previous global economic depression and trade battles.(1)

In his opening speech at the Bretton Woods conference, Henry Morganthau said the "bewilderment and bitterness" resulting from the Depression became "the breeders of fascism, and finally, of war". Proponents of the new institutions felt that global economic interaction was necessary to maintain international peace and security. The institutions would facilitate, in Morganthau's words, "[the] creation of a dynamic world community in which the peoples of every nation will be able to realize their potentialities in peace". (2) Sounds wonderful doesn't it? Unfortunately visions and realities sometimes work against each other.

The vision of the World Bank from its inception has been to lift people out of poverty and set them on the road to prosperity. All markets require participants. There is no point in making products unless there are people to buy them. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were instrumental in jump starting and rebuilding the European economy after the Second World War. Today their major focus is halving the number of people in poverty by the year 2015.(3) This is a major challenge as half the world's population earns less than two dollars a day and the population is expected to grow by 2 billion in the next 25 years.

How will the World Bank work toward this praiseworthy end? By collaborating with national government leaders to follow an investment and economic development plan that will assist them in participating more fully in the global marketplace. As each nation buys and sells more and more in the marketplace, all will prosper as the rising monetary tide floats everyone's boat higher and higher. This is how Europe recovered from the war and this is the same strategy that will work for everyone else. The wealthy nations give the poorer nations a hand to join in international trade and increase their people's standard of living.

Sounds good doesn't it? Then why have their been so many protests against the Bretton Woods institutions? Why did so many people turn up to protest the WTO in Seattle?

To answer these questions, we need to do a little reality testing. One way to sort out what really happens when the wealthy nations extend their hand to help the poorer nations is to look at a specific example. I'm indebted to Bill Batt for his help directing me to Arundhati Roy (4), an Indian novelist and political activist who writes about a big development project supported by the World Bank.

In the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh begins the mighty Narmada river. The river winds its way through 800 miles of broad-leaved forest and fertile agricultural land supporting about 25 million people. The Indian government has been working for 40 years to build an extensive network of dams on this river.

I want to focus our attention on big dams because the World Bank has been intimately involved in building many of them. The reason for this is because water is a path to wealth. Engineering advances in the 20th century allowed us to build bigger and safer dams. The World Bank saw building dams as a way to promote economic development in poor countries. They were touted as having three primary advantages. Damning a river controls flooding and saves water for use during dry seasons. Having a ready source of water year round allows irrigation to increase agricultural productivity. Finally, water is one of the cheapest ways to produce electricity. Again, building dams sounds like a great way to lift a region out of poverty.

Let's look more closely at the solution to see if it indeed does hold water. The first problem to consider with the goals of flood control, irrigation and power generation is that they conflict with each other. Often dams are oversold in their capacity to store and distributed water and generate electricity. To control flooding, the reservoir needs to be kept somewhat empty. But to supply a high volume of immediately available water for drinking and irrigation, the dam needs to be kept full all the time. Keeping the dam full prevents release of water for the generation of electricity. The lower the reservoir is kept to prevent flooding, the more pumping is required to lift the water into irrigation canals, often higher than the reservoir. In fact geography can demand that much of the electricity generated be used to run the irrigation pumps.

The next question to ask about big dams is their effect on the environment. The shift from purely engineering concerns about efficiency to the effects on flora and fauna darkens the picture. The most obvious concern is the loss of arable land and everything on it. Forests, meadows, and habitat disappear either displacing the wildlife or drowning it. Towns and villages are submerged destroying those communities.

What is less apparent is what happens to the river itself. Rivers do not only transport water. They also move sediment. Once a river is dammed, the sediment stays behind the dam and starves the river for small stones and silt. That sediment is very important to the ecology of a river. Without it the river begins eroding the riverbed more quickly often lowering the water table. The delta and shoreline around the mouth of a river as it flows into the sea can erode without replenishment. Salt water intrudes up the river basin as its flow decreases. Fish breeding can be endangered as their trip upstream to spawn is blocked and the gravel they use to hide their eggs disappears. Studying systematically the effects of big dams has shown scientists they have many drawbacks.

Rivers aren't dammed to serve their ecology. They are dammed to serve people. So now let us turn our attention to who is being served.

Most obviously not being served are the displaced poor people the World Bank claims to be striving to lift out of poverty. Arundhati Roy's recounting of the history of big dam building in India is a horror story for those displaced by dams. Big promises are made to the people whose land will be flooded. The reality has been little or nothing is done to resettle or compensate people for their land. In a place like India with a huge population, there is no place to relocate displaced people without displacing someone else from their land and livelihood. And the cost of doing a good job of relocation is prohibitive since most of the money allocated for a big dam projects goes into constructing it and dealing with predictable cost overruns.

In the non-cash economy of primitive village life in India, all one's worldly wealth is in one's house and land. Subsistence farmers' only economic gain comes from what they can raise on their land or gather from a nearby forest. When displaced, that farmer has no resources. Even if the government gives that person a few Rupees for their land, the peasant can do little to convert that cash into a new way to make a living. Listen to how Roy graphically describes their challenge:

For the people who've been resettled, everything has to be relearned. Every little thing, every big thing: from [defecating] and [urinating] (where d'you do it when there's no jungle to hide you?) to buying a bus ticket, to learning a new language, to understanding money. And worst of all, learning to be supplicants. Learning to take orders. Learning to have masters. Learning to answer only when you're addressed. (5)

A farmer who is able to live well on what he can grow and gather from the forest has nothing when they disappear under the rising waters. The dam might as well drown those farmers for almost all will not be able to recover the loss of their way of living.

How about the farmers with access to irrigation the dam provides? Will they benefit? That depends if they are small farmers or large corporate farmers. Irrigation is expensive and geographically disruptive if the canal cuts across the farmer's land. Canals usually do not follow natural drainage paths, often cutting across them and disrupting them. Modifying the topology of the land to reroute the drainage patterns to make them compatible with the canals is very expensive and usually isn't done. The result can be waterlogged soil that cannot be used at all for cultivation. Irrigation also has the nasty side effect of drawing salts in the soil to the surface. If the salinity of the soil rises too high nothing will grow on it.

The economic boon, the straw into gold trick of irrigation, is increasing the growing season. In India, instead of only one growing season a year, there can be three or four. Thus the land can be far more productive. The new abundance of water can change the kind of crop that is grown. Instead of growing crops that require little water such as maize, barley and millet, the farmer can now grow water guzzling cash crops like cotton, rice, soy beans and the biggest guzzler of all, sugar cane. (6)

Why now grow a cash crop? Because now the water costs money rather than falling from the sky freely, on the just and unjust, on the rich and poor alike. Now the farmer is gradually forced into the global economy and becomes one of its suppliers. Most likely the cost of that water and fertilizer needed to amend soil depletion will just about cover what the crops will bring. No longer self-sufficient, the farmer still has nothing but now has become completely dependent on foreign markets. And when they decline, the farmer goes into debt.

The promises sounded wonderful just like the high sounding ideals of the World Bank. Unfortunately these poor people are not the ones benefiting from these big dam projects. To find out who really benefits we must look further.

Few, if any, dams are currently being built here in the United States. In fact, we are in the expensive process of dismantling some of them to rectify the environmental damage they've done. Where do the companies who build dams go? The same place companies whose pesticides have been banned go - to the developing world where government officials can be bought with promises and sometimes bribes. Bankers make money when it is loaned for big construction projects. Developers, bankers, and government officials all fatten themselves at the trough "helping" raise poor people's standard of living.

At the end of the pipeline though, it is you and me who are cooperating with the flooding of those people's lands through our economic demand for cash crops like sugar, coffee, chocolate, bananas, and out of season fruit. We want those cheaper prices at Walmart for clothing, driven down by flooding the market with cheap cotton, driving all but large American corporate growers out of business. We, the shareholders, demand profits for our retirement accounts, encouraging companies like GE to sell the turbines to generate electricity from that Indian dam. Yes, our Western values and lifestyle are the ones driving and benefiting from globalization.

We can't fault the World Bank for this. The World Bank is driven by the same ethic that drives our society. We define quality of life economically. The World Bank sums up the quality of life of the world's poor with a number. They earn under $2 a day. What are completely lost in this economic view of reality are the real indicators of quality of life. What I eat is a necessary yet tiny part of what a quality life is about. The more important questions are: what is the quality of my environment? What is the quality of my social life? What is the quality of my spiritual life? Current trends in globalization are not focused on improving the quality of the environment, or social life or spiritual life. Current trends in globalization are working against our principle of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

I know I'm short on time and there is no happy ending yet to this sermon. Tremendous forces are at work to make things worse not better. We must wake up to our complicity in globalization and make hard choices about how we live our lives. If there is any hope for the poor, it will come from consciously redirecting our personal sources of sustenance, pleasure and meaning toward a reintegration of the world economy around self-sufficiency and ecologically sound sustainability.

If we don't, the suffering the world will rightly rest on our shoulders.


Copyright 2002 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.



(2)    ibid (excellent source on these institutions activities)

(3)    World Bank Annual Report for 2001

(4)    Roy, Arundhati, Power Politics, South End Press, Cambridge, MA 2001

(5)    Roy, Arundhati, The Cost of Living, Modern Library, NY, NY 1999, p 54

(6)    Ibid p. 68