Last week, children and teens from various communities INFANT works with converged in Lima for a consultation workshop with the Bank Information Center (BIC). BIC is a DC-based non-profit that “partners with civil society in developing and transition countries to influence the World Bank and other international financial institutions (IFIs) to promote social and economic justice and ecological sustainability.” BIC believes that children—with particular experiences, opinions, and needs—should be involved in the World Bank’s current process of reviewing its safeguard policies, and so its representatives travel to World Bank member countries to conduct these youth consultation workshops. From its website, BIC’s hope with such workshops is to convince the World Bank to: “Take into account the views of children in the creation of its revised safeguard policies; and Include strong protections for the rights of children, that incorporate children’s own articulations of their needs.”
The workshop was all day Friday, starting with an educational session about the World Bank, followed by several activities that allowed the participants to share their experiences, imagine projects that might benefit their communities, and articulate what they see as priorities for local and international development. The day culminated in a brief visit from representatives from the World Bank—one local and the others in town for consultations with government officials—who watched the children and teens present their ideas on environmental impact assessments, safeguards, and their rights as children. The days leading up to the workshop were spent in a flurry of energy at the INFANT/MNNATSOP house, where all the kids, including those from Lima, bunked together in four bedrooms. INFANT facilitators led workshops contextualizing BIC’s visit, and the kids spent time sharing stories, struggles, and peeks at Facebook. On Thursday afternoon, Alejandro Cussiánovich—teacher, former priest, and long-term ally and philosopher of the working youth movement—spoke to the group. You are experts in your own experience, he told them. He had been in the room for the last half hour listening intently, as always, as they described some of their struggles, and some potential solutions. “Our experience is the source of what we feel, think, and propose,” he said. All the ideas they were planning to share with the BIC and World Bank representatives, he continued, were not stories they had read or ideas implanted by others—they were their own lived experiences, their own confrontations with eviction, deforestation, contamination, and disenfranchisement. But as we know, he reminded them, the World Bank doesn’t consult with children, and doesn’t necessarily believe it should.
“They may ask you,” he provoked, “what makes you think you have rights?”
Several hands shot up, followed by a chorus of voices referring to La Convención: the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), established by the United Nations in 1989. Alejandro beamed as Flor, a 17-year old from Villa El Salvador, cited the specific Article of the CRC that outlines children’s right to participation. But he didn’t stop there. He went on to enumerate other important geopolitical events of 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall, cementing the dominance of the capitalist paradigm; the Washington Consensus, ushering in the age of Neoliberalism; and the establishment of the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, written for, but not by, or from within the cosmology of, native peoples themselves, he emphasized. As he spoke, and jotted words on the whiteboard, his audience stared, nodded, and took notes. He did not sugar coat the concepts or dumb them down. He explained that the codifying of their rights came about in a moment of transition to the world we’re living in now, most especially a solidifying of economic structures that influence the decisions of institutions like the World Bank.
Jolie from the BIC explained to the group that her intentions were to show the World Bank what it could look like for them to consult with children about matters that would affect them. The young people I listened to on Friday exhibited a kind of piercing, probing awareness and curiosity that, if only for moments at a time, seemed to melt away the opacity of massive institutions. In the first few minutes of the workshop, Jolie told everyone that so far, all the World Bank presidents have been U.S. citizens. Karoly, a 13-year-old from Cantagallo, immediately raised her hand and asked, “And why have all the World Bank’s presidents also been men?” Once the World Bank representatives themselves came, Karoly wasted no time in asking one of them the same question directly. (She got the same answer both times: that there is no official rule, and furthermore no good reason, that there has never been a female World Bank president, but that on the bright side, the current president of the IMF happens to be a woman. She seemed only mildly satisfied with such a reply.)
It is not quite as simple as saying that children, in their presumed innocence or lack of cynicism, have a special kind of wisdom. Many of the children in that room have worked longer hours than some adults I know. The wisdom that suffused the encounters last week seemed a patchwork of young and old, sincere and strategic. There was undoubtedly a graceful simplicity to some of the comments, as well as a profound display of imagination—combined with a depth of experience that may appear incompatible with childhood. These creative, determined young people were unafraid to say to the (all) men of the World Bank in the room, "We hope you really listen to us. We hope you actually take our concerns back with you and do something about them." To consult such individuals is to open up rich worlds of understanding, meaning and possibility.
Jolie asked me to record a few of them as videos.