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The BBC's Judith Moloney
"The protesters want all debt cancelled now"
 real 56k

Sunday, 24 September, 2000, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Debt protesters take to the streets
March in Prague
Protests so far have been largely peaceful
By BBC News Online's Steve Schifferes in Prague

Hundreds of campaigners are marching in Prague as the main policy-making body of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) begins a meeting to discuss debt relief.

We condemn violence which ends in broken windows and which kills 19,000 children a day

Jubilee 2000 UK director Ann Pettifor

They want the IMF and its sister organisation, the World Bank, to cancel altogether debts owed to them by the poorest countries.

The protesters are staging a "funeral" procession through Czech capital to highlight their view that 7 million children a year die because of the debt crisis.

Jubliee 2000, which is organising the march, says it will be totally non-violent and that it is commited to peaceful protest.

Police guard a McDonald's outlet
Security has been stepped up in central Prague
"We condemn violence, both the violence which ends in broken windows, and the violence that kills 19,000 children a day," the group's UK director Ann Pettifor told the BBC.

Other protests have been less peaceful.

On Saturday, minor skirmishes broke out with police as anti-globalisation demonstrators attempted to march on the Prague Congress Centre, where the IMF meeting is taking place.

Rich countries reject demands

There is no prospect that the IMF meeting will agree to do what the protestors want.

The world's seven richest countries, which have a controlling stake in the IMF, met on Saturday and reaffirmed their commitment to the IMF's existing approach.

Tony Burdon of Oxfam told the BBC that he was "very disappointed" by the decision which represented a "missed opportunity for making real progress" and that it reflected a disturbing "complacency about the real situation in the world's poorest countries."

IMF conditionalities need to be more simple and coherent - in our country, almost 180 measures had to be taken in 12 months

Mozambique finance minister

Developing countries have also joined in the criticism of the World Bank and IMF.

Commonwealth finance ministers called on the IMF to reduce bureacracy and increase funding for its debt initiative.

The IMF sometimes required a country to fulfill 150 to 200 conditions before receiving any help, the ministers said.

"Their conditionalities need to be simplified and made more coherent," said Luisa Dias Diogo, finance minister of Mozambique.

IMF sensitive to criticism

But there have been signs that the IMF is sensitive to criticism of the enhanced debt relief initiative it launched with the World Bank last year.

Group of Italian anarchists in Prague
Italian anarchists reflect the international breadth of protest
The improvements were intended to provide more debt relief to more countries more quickly, and the IMF now says it hopes 20 countries, out of the 41 originally targeted for debt relief, will qualify by the end of the year.

The IMF's managing director, Horst Koehler, says the two organisations are making a special effort make debt relief a success.

He said they were reviewing the policies that countries had to follow to qualify for debt relief, and were being more flexible about how long a track record of approved policies was required.

Oil price fears

This meeting of the IMF's main policy-making committee comes at a time when its economists say the outlook is the brightest it has been for a decade.

The cloud over that outlook is the level of oil prices.

If prices do not come down, the IMF and the World Bank have warned that economic growth next year could be significantly slower in rich and poor countries which rely on imported oil.

The world's richest countries have already called on Opec to boost production in order to lower oil prices.

Political pressures are likely to intensify, especialy given the continuing protests over high fuel prices in Western Europe and the United States.

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See also:

23 Sep 00 | Business
G7 ready for further euro action
23 Sep 00 | Europe
Day of protests in Prague
23 Sep 00 | Business
Rich countries lean on Opec
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