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Inside the palace of glass

About the author
Simon Maxwell is a senior research associate of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Britain's leading independent think-tank on international development and humanitarian policy. He is executive chair of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network
Not long ago, international summits were surrounded by the silence of the lambs. The loudest noise was the ripple of camera shots at the group photo. But that was before Seattle. And Prague. And Sao Paulo. And Nice. And Goteborg. In a stunningly short time, the tranquil festivities of globalisation’s government – IMF, World Bank, EU, WTO, G8 - have been transformed into sites of epic, mediatised confrontation with a refreshingly eclectic liberationist caravanserai.

And don’t forget Amsterdam. All right, it was only a conference on poverty, and most of the really big cheeses were in the buffet rather than on the platform. The demonstrations were really quite small. But I was there. On the other side of the barricades. In, but not run by, a suit.

Wolfensohn and a follicle challenge

I knew this would be an interesting trip as soon as I eased my way through the revolving door, into the lobby of the Hotel d’Europe. It had been billed as a charming five star hotel, overlooking a canal in the heart of Amsterdam, so I was prepared for the gilt decor, the thick carpets, the easy chairs, and the bowl of fruit on a nearby table. What I hadn’t quite expected was the sight of several gilded and thickly carpeted women of uncertain age, each escorted by a jowly male of proprietorial mien.

One woman in particular, face lift likely, liposuction highly probable given the fit of her leopard-skin leotard, caused me to clutch my suitcase extra tight, and fix my eyes firmly on the reception desk. There had just been, it turned out, a fashion show. Pity to miss it, I could have paraded my new Hugo Boss angora jacket. Perhaps I could have found myself a jowly protector too.

No time to search however, better to have an early night - somewhat delayed by the need to admire the view of the canal from the window, sample the bowl of fruit and the chocolates provided free in my room, try on the towelling dressing gown and slippers, and lounge on the large bed flipping through the thirty-five television channels.

Up early for breakfast in a charming dining room overlooking the canal (lavish buffet, of course), then a five-minute stroll to the seventeenth century church, now a university conference centre, where the meeting (on poverty, what else) is being held. It promises well, a meeting with good speakers - the president of the World Bank, the Dutch minister, lots of others, including me (twice).

What’s this, however? There’s a crowd outside the church, small but vociferous, waving placards, shouting slogans against capitalism and the World Bank. Barriers, vans, police in riot gear, horses. I’m wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase. I’ve had a buffet breakfast. I wore the dressing gown. I watched the thirty-five TV channels. Will they know? Will they think I am…? Surely not?

I remember my speech at the last poverty conference in Holland, only two weeks ago (after previously being ostracised for saying something positive about the World Bank), when I said that I have lived my life by three principles: the inevitability of world revolution, the necessity for class struggle, and the belief that the World Bank may occasionally have a good idea. It was intended as a joke, at the time. Now, I’m not so sure. I know about the first two, but will these hardened veterans of Prague? And while the riot police, with their shields and batons, will be happy with my third principle, will they read the first two in my eyes? Damn the suit. Damn the tie. Damn the briefcase. Perhaps I need a leopard-skin leotard?

Soon I’m in, and am escorted to a private room for VIPs, lined with portraits of past chancellors of the University. I drink coffee. Outside, the shouts grow louder. Other speakers arrive, more Dutch hosts. A senior policeman briefs us. These are hardened demonstrators, some of them professionals. They come from all over: the demo has been advertised on the internet. He hopes there will be no disruption. His men are there in force. As we will have seen, a cordon of crowd control barriers has been thrown around the building. We will use back and side entrances. Golly. Is my son Oliver (the campaigning one) out there? Should I be? Close the Bank! Cut the debt! Wolfensohn out! Well, actually, mostly, no.

The Minister arrives, then Wolfensohn, then we finish our coffee and go into the church - over two hundred people, including a surprisingly large number of young men, who, I later learn, are plain clothes policemen. More than twenty of them, apparently. They have intelligence that the meeting has been infiltrated, and that there will be trouble.

Surprisingly, there is not. Wolfensohn speaks, and the minister. No trouble, very few hard questions even. I am on later, so not yet visible, and feel it wise to bide my time. However, I do find myself sitting right behind the two of them while they wait to speak, and I notice that Wolfensohn has shed a hair. It sits invitingly on the back of his jacket. I hatch an idea: I should steal the hair, take it home, and conduct voodoo on it. A sudden change in bank policy. Wolfensohn a transformed man. And no-one will know why! Carefully and casually, I lean forward. My neighbour (the minister’s private secretary) looks a little surprised. Undaunted, however, I pounce. The trophy is mine.

Nike and ballooning inequality

The meeting continues. Wolfensohn and the minister go. The protestors do not, and are now more numerous. They find it hard to get up early, apparently. At lunch, we creep out through a side door, to a restaurant. The cordon is in place. The square is thick with helmeted police, clutching wicker shields and batons. The wicker shields are sweet - a kind of intermediate technology riot control. Police horses stamp their feet. There are a few shouts. My Dutch companion is impressed: these are not your everyday riot police, this is the crack unit. Some of the crack unit, I note, are women. Good.

Lunch is delicious, exquisitely presented. I talk to a former deputy prime minister of Bulgaria, a generous spirit with a more than generous girth. We are all amused, needless to say, by the protest. Of course, it’s Jim Wolfensohn they’re after, not us. More wine?

Later, I speak, on a panel to do with business partnerships. I’m standing in here for Kevin Watkins from Oxfam, and it’s a topic I don’t know much about. Never mind, I have a few facts ready, and lots of tricks, involving a balloon and some audience participation. I raise a laugh at least. There’s one fact I don’t use. My neighbour at the table is a vice-president of Nike, and I’ve looked them up on the anti-capitalist web-site. This one is a killer: Nike pay Michael Jordan, the basketball player, more to endorse their shoes than they pay the entire workforce, 35,000 strong, that makes the shoes in Vietnam.

The VP should be a dragon. She’s not. She is young, blonde, charming, has a nine year old daughter, and used to sell balloons to pay her way through college. Balloons! We have so much in common! I suppress the killer fact - anyway, the economics I know, are complicated. And actually, I’ve been quite tough on business partnerships. Tough enough, anyway. Searching questions. I hope.

Refuge at the Rijksmuseum

The session ends, and it’s time for the next event, a trip by canal boat to the Rijksmuseum, the national art gallery, for the official reception. The street outside is peaceful now, though the police are still here. The short walk to the boat is quiet, and we joke about the protest. I sit with Caroline from Save the Children, and a couple of Dutch civil servants. The rest are mostly academics. Two World Bank vice-presidents, though. Caroline was in Prague and knows all about the sociology of protest. There were three groups in Prague: blue (violent), pink (fluffy, prepared to talk), and pink with white stripes (even more fluffy, very keen to talk).

Quite an interesting day, we agree, and aren’t the canals beautiful? We take the long route round. Our Dutch colleagues feed us information and point out the sights. A house overlooking a canal can be had for about £1 million. Cheap, we agree, compared to London. A Vietnamese shoemaker has a minimum wage of about £30 a month.

Eventually, our glass-topped boat pulls up at a quay outside the Rijksmuseum. Funny thing, there seem to be quite a few young men loitering on the bridge, gazing idly down at us. Then we notice police, quite a few of them. Really, quite a few. We are held on the boat. There’s a flurry of activity outside. The young men are shouting. The police rush the bridge and block the far end, shields belligerently up. Between us and the Rijksmuseum, a hundred yards or so, there’s another police cordon, more barriers, a small crowd. We emerge on to the quay. Shouts go up. We hurry. The police urge us on. Suddenly, we are walking over custard pies. A group of policemen chase under an arch and down a cobbled street. A journalist asks us how we feel. We say we understand the feelings of the protestors, but are just academics (don’t mention the VPs).

Then we’re inside, and quickly into the main Rembrandt and Vermeer gallery. The museum is closed, of course. High ceilings, familiar paintings on every wall, white-coated waiters and waitresses with drinks and snacks, attentive. We relax. Laugh nervously. Stroll among the pictures. Discuss poverty and aid. The vice-chancellor makes a short and graceful speech, standing in front of Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Such a pity about the protestors.

Learning the Gap lessons

A small group of us is invited to dinner - the World Bank VPs, a Dutch MP and his wife, a handful of Dutch poverty specialists, me. The front door is unsafe. Follow me please, we will take a different route. Down, round, down some more, rooms full of statuary, paintings, pottery. Then, out into the evening air, a quiet street, a taxi ride, and dinner. Lobster bisque and turbot since you ask – no dessert, but some delicious chocolates with the coffee. Jacques and Jan Willem, Nick and Jean Francois and I enjoy sparring over poverty measurement and the importance of reducing inequality. Jacques is comically rebuking: Simon, you have let the gini (a measure of inequality) out of the bottle. Put it back. I laugh at the witty pun, do as I am told, and cover up the bottle of red wine.

Wednesday, and things are quieter. We’ve been on the news, though, and are in the papers. Shop windows have been broken. Forty people have been arrested. The photos show police horses and fierce, determined young men. No mention of poverty. No mention at all. Never mind, we carry on. I give my presentation. An elaborate joke about custard pies, except that I have to use a bun instead, borrowed from the breakfast buffet. Expectations raised yesterday. A performance artist. Standards to keep up. But some serious messages too, about the need to be more radical on redistribution. The gini is out of the bottle. Also rights.

Nearly over. Lunch as good as yesterday, but a little rushed. We’re anxious to finish and go home. I talk to the chairman of a large multinational. His three children all had gap years in the developing world, he went to visit and is now quite keen. Very good - but how to go beyond philanthropy? Would he fund ODI, I wonder? I make a modest pitch on supporting think-tanks in the developing world. His killer fact: more than 3 million people around the world are employed to make clothes for Gap. I wonder (silently) how much they earn in total compared to the chairman.

The afternoon is long. I sit at the back and read the paper. Good old Guardian. I read about alleged police brutality in Prague, and, more relevantly, about why the oil companies supported the fuel blockade. A warning shot, the article says, to discourage Gordon Brown from putting up tax on oil extracted from the North Sea. A former CEO of Shell is on the panel, but I’ve had my say at this meeting.

And poverty? Well, we talked a lot. There’s an emerging consensus. The World Bank is making some revisionist noises. And there’s a good story to tell when I get home.

But damn, I mislaid the hair.


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