Bleeding-Heart Bankers

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WASHINGTON: The plight of the poor isn't usually a passionate concern of the world's bankers. But it's become a recurring theme at this week's IMF conference, which may portend a significant shift in the way the international body lends money. Traditionally the IMF has demanded harsh austerity measures in struggling economies before helping them out, and usually it's the poor who pick up the tab. "There's been a lot of discussion on how the poor suffer most from IMF prescriptions," says TIME business reporter Bernard Baumohl. "The IMF is going to have to be much more flexible in what it demands of the countries it's helping -- the IMF's tough prescriptions actually pushed some of the Asian countries into depression."

President Clinton and European leaders on Tuesday urged the IMF to consider the human dimension of fiscal crisis, pressing the international body to pause before automatically demanding fierce budget cuts in borrowing countries. After all, the spread of poverty shrinks markets and economies, which in turn threatens Western prosperity. In other words, it pays to fight poverty.