The Prague protests did nothing to advance the relief of world poverty

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The Anti-Capitalist protesters of Prague who celebrated the news that the IMF/World Bank summit had closed a day early are more naive than could have been imagined. Did the Luddites celebrate when the textile manufacturers shut their factories half an hour early so their looms would not be smashed?

The Anti-Capitalist protesters of Prague who celebrated the news that the IMF/World Bank summit had closed a day early are more naive than could have been imagined. Did the Luddites celebrate when the textile manufacturers shut their factories half an hour early so their looms would not be smashed?

The protests against "globalisation" and "free markets" were empty, misconceived and futile. They have turned into a travelling circus, a ritual opportunity for the expression of a miscellany of mismatched protest, united only by a vacuous opposition to "capitalism". That would not matter, except that the protests threaten to obscure the single valuable cause: the popular campaign to put pressure on global financial institutions to speed up the programme of debt relief for poor countries.

As the tear-gas clears from the streets of Prague, a set of sober distinctions need to be made. First, there is the distinction between violent and non-violent protest. It is a dangerous weakness in Western liberal opinion to regard the smashing-up of McDonald's restaurants as a form of radical chic in which any self-respecting public schoolboy ought to indulge. While we recognise that the vast majority of the demonstrators were emphatically and sincerely committed to peaceful protest - to the point of debating earnestly whether shouting was a form of violence - they need to work out how to distance themselves more effectively from the black-shirted anarchist provocateurs who will predictably take advantage of this kind of event, as we have seen in London.

Second, there is the distinction to be made between those protests that are economically literate and those - which tend to dominate the circus - that are not. Debt relief is a complex issue, and simple calls to "write off all Third World debt" may make first-world protesters feel better but will do nothing for the world's poor.

The pressure group Jubilee 2000 understands the arguments well and is pressing the IMF and World Bank where it matters: trying to speed the debt-relief programme for countries, such as Uganda, that have met its conditions. This is all too difficult and smacks too much of collaboration for the student radicals, but the world can be changed only by people who get their hands dirty with policy detail and engage with the institutions that bring the governments of the world together.

That means analysing the defects of the IMF and the World Bank while recognising that they must be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Like all supranational bodies, they are prone to bureaucratic sclerosis. Tellingly, the start of Sunday's joint ministerial meeting was delayed because they could not agree on the correct form for the nameplates of women ministers, and no one wanted to ask Clare Short, Britain's development minister, about her marital status.

More serious has been the slowness with which both bodies have responded to a political consensus, led by Ms Short, Gordon Brown and Bill Clinton, to write off completely the debts of those countries that have satisfied the IMF that the benefits will be felt by the general population, rather than siphoned off by the military or the ruler's relatives.

If the closing of this week's summit a day early meant that the ministerial place-name-checkers of the IMF and World Bank had decided to devote themselves instead to driving through the debt relief that has already been agreed, then the non-violent, economically literate protesters would have something to cheer. As it is, neither side emerges from the street battles of Prague with much honour.

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