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Public Culture 14.3 (2002) 493-513

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Empowerment Money:
The World Bank, Non-Governmental Organizations, and the Value of Culture in Egypt

Julia Elyachar

With the antiglobalization protests in Washington, D.C., in April 2000, the term globalization took a new turn on its slippery discursive slope. First surfacing on the pages of the financial and business press in the 1970s, globalization developed into the catchword of a highly successful neoliberal agenda that asserted the inevitable refiguring of state regulatory regimes to increase the profitability of global financial capital. 1 From these origins in the world of business and finance, the term spread throughout academia, including the fields of anthropology and cultural studies. 2 But with the rise of the antiglobalization movement [End Page 493] and, in particular, the highly successful protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C., the term globalization achieved a different kind of status. It became not only the keyword of the broadest protest movement at the turn of the millennium but, additionally, a signifier of all that was good and all that is bad in the postcommunist era.

In the discussion that emerged in the press immediately following the Washington protests, globalization became a metaphor for development as well. 3 In fact, development itself often appeared to be the focus of these discussions rather than any set of conditions usually designated as globalization. By the end of April 2000, development as critiqued by anthropologists and others since the 1980s had evidently been given a discursive burial. 4 No one wanted to defend development anymore—not even the World Bank. [End Page 494]

Indeed, the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, defended his policies against the antiglobalization protestors by insisting that he, too, was against development. "We," he said, "are way ahead of the protestors." 5 To prove his point, he cited charts to illustrate the decline of development lending for large projects at the bank and the parallel rise of so-called microloans, that is, very small loans to individuals selling goods in the marketplace, often in the Third World. 6 What are we to think when the president of the World Bank attempts to prove himself more radical about development than the radicals? Or when he espouses the critique of development as the foundational tenet of a new development policy? And how, in all this, do microloans function as the inverse of development?

Developing Antidevelopment; Economizing the People

According to Andrea Durbin, director of Friends of the Earth USA, "the rhetoric of the [World Bank] has changed in the last five years. . . . But the practice hasn't." 7 Durbin is both right and wrong. Voices against the old orthodoxy can still be fired or pressured to quit. 8 Enforcement of structural adjustment policies (SAPs) does not seem, on the surface of things, to have changed much. But inside the doors of the World Bank, the people that many would like to empower have been the subject of intense scrutiny—and development support—for some years now. Since the 1980s, the World Bank has been doing a lot to seek out and empower the people whom critics see as its victims.

Readers might be surprised to learn the extent to which development institutions, particularly in their search to empower, have embraced antidevelopment as their praxis. This new tendency can be observed in training programs linked to microlending schemes funded by the World Bank and other development agencies. [End Page 495] For example, the training programs I attended in Cairo in 1995, organized by USAID for "community NGO leaders," taught only respect for the hidden entrepreneurial qualities of the Third World poor—especially women. An exercise on financial management described the dilemmas of a woman in Peru (the organizers didn't have time, they apologetically explained, to make up new worksheets with Arabic names put in) whose husband had been downsized from a public sector job. Thus he was now free, like the proletariat of old, to join his wife in her more entrepreneurial project of selling food on the street...