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Originally published Sunday, June 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Close-up

Inside the World Bank

Even now, after the demonstrators shouting and the finance ministers whizzing around in their limousines, after all the fussing about Iraq...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Even now, after the demonstrators shouting and the finance ministers whizzing around in their limousines, after all the fussing about Iraq war architect Paul Wolfowitz taking over last week, who really knows what the World Bank does?

You can't cash a check there. You can't get a loan, unless your name is, maybe, Mali.

"My mother believes I am a teller," says Umou Bazzaz, a communications staffer from Sierra Leone. She laughs. She has given up trying to explain.

"People think we can give a wicked home-equity line," says Keith Hansen, native Minnesotan, who directs the bank's AIDS campaign in Africa. And people think of the World Bank as a gold-plated compound of endless perks and tax breaks and luxurious surroundings, hardly in keeping with the mission of raising the wretched of the Earth out of poverty.

The World Bank looms over Pennsylvania Avenue at 18th Street Northwest. The glass-facade building, like the institution itself, strives to be transparent yet often feels impenetrable. Nearly 7,000 people work in the building and three adjacent annexes, making this huge bureaucracy, after the federal and municipal governments, the largest employer in the city.

$20 billion annually

5 Agencies, 1 Group


The World Bank Group consists of five closely associated institutions, all owned by member countries:

The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development

aims to reduce poverty in middle-income and creditworthy poorer countries by promoting sustainable development through loans, guarantees and advisory services. Established 1945.

The International Development Association draws contributions to provide approximately $6 billion to $9 billion a year in financing to the world's 81 poorest countries. Established 1960.

The Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency helps promote foreign direct investment in developing countries by providing guarantees to investors against such risks as expropriation, war and civil disturbance and breach of contract. Established 1988.

The International Finance Corporation promotes economic development through the private sector without accepting government guarantees. It provides equity, long-term loans, structured finance and risk-management products, and advisory services. Established 1956.

The International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes provides international facilities for conciliation and arbitration of investment disputes. Established 1966.

Source: World Bank

Each year it moves about $20 billion out the doors, money-funding programs intended to lift the Third World out of poverty.

Developmental economics, it's called, and hundreds of World Bankers have doctorates in it. The idea is simple and noble: The world is very rich and very poor, and this disparity is both morally wrong and, in practical terms, dangerously destabilizing. But how to lift up 1.2 billion people living on a dollar a day?

This is what World Bankers think about. In a city obsessed with political maneuvering, real-estate values, traffic congestion, baseball, summer humidity, maybe all in the same hour, the World Bankers are a tribe apart.

They're seriously cerebral. History Magazine is what is lined up on the top row of the bank's newsstand. The in-house film festival shows "Chernobyl." An upcoming presentation — open to any employee! — is "Political Economy of Regional Power Markets: Testing Times in the Nordic Power Market."

They're fervently earnest. They believe in the importance of their work, even when they are drowning in the 14th-draft revision of a health-sector project as insisted on by the bank's executive board, which meets at least twice a week to talk about loans and grants and ask clever questions and get clever answers and then talk some more.

"Our clients are dying"

"There is always a sense of urgency," says Anne Thomas, a manager in the bank's internal conflict-resolution system, "because our clients are dying literally every day."

They're intimidatingly smart. It's nearly impossible to get a job at the bank without speaking at least two languages fluently and holding at least a master's degree. Multiple advanced degrees are better yet, preferably from Harvard, Princeton, the University of Chicago, SAIS or LSE (That would be, respectively, the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins or the London School of Economics). "You know the Type A personality?" asks Lennart Dimberg, who heads occupational health at the bank. "Well, the people here are triple-A. They drive themselves. They push deadlines. They push the people around them. They were recruited to be achievers."

When President Bush nominated Wolfowitz, then deputy defense secretary, to succeed James Wolfensohn as bank president, the staff association set up a Web-based confidential comment line. It logged 1,300 e-mails in 48 hours. About 87 percent of the e-mails were adamantly opposed to the appointment.

"People were concerned about the effect of the appointment on their ability to do the work," says Alison Cave, chairwoman of the association, which represents employees. "They were fearful the bank's credibility and effectiveness on the ground would be damaged by his close link to the war. Why is it this person? Why is it political?"

Taking the helm

In his first meeting with the staff June 1, Wolfowitz tried to reassure his new employees. In answering a question, he said: "Politically neutral development can serve everybody's interests in a region, and it can actually expand the area on which people can come to agree on what are sometimes difficult political differences." The bank, he said, often brings "a unique objectivity" to development, then added, "I will do everything in my power to preserve that objectivity."

Of course, the bank itself is committed to regime change, too, albeit peacefully, as the Economist pointed out this week. And that is precisely why activists around the globe eye it with deep suspicion. On Wolfowitz's first day, members of the coalition 50 Years Is Enough were outside, trying to give him a letter of complaint signed by more than 300 groups from 62 countries, decrying the bank's "destructive policies" and demanding more accountability.

It can't be resolved one way or the other, the question of whether the bank does good work. Officials will point to 300 million fewer people living in poverty in China and 70 million more children in primary school in India than there were a decade ago, then readily acknowledge that the bank can't really assess how much of that is due to its lending and knowledge-sharing in those countries.

Left-leaning critics charge that the bank is on the side of big business, storming into poor regions, imposing progress that places the needs of corporations over those of the people, ruining the environment and strangling poor nations with massive debt. Right-leaning critics frown that the bank throws billions down the ratholes of the Third World, while the elites running the project fly in and out in business class, lolling at five-star hotels.

Even the bank's own can turn. Joseph Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2001, was the bank's chief economist from 1996 to 1999, when he resigned in protest. He praises Wolfensohn for clarifying the institution's mission and recognizing that some past approaches didn't work, but Stiglitz chides it and the International Monetary Fund for having strong-armed developing countries into accepting its advice.

While the richest nations, Stiglitz wrote earlier this year in a newspaper column, "all declare their commitment to democracy and good governance — and espouse promoting them as one of (the bank's) central objectives — there is a yawning gap between what they preach and what they practice."

Under siege

All of this can leave a World Banker feeling a bit embattled.

Says Cave: "A lot of critics feel we are pro-business, pro-globalization, but the staff is not. And we would be quite upset if that were the underlying agenda. As an urban planner, it used to drive me crazy that (people thought) we were destroying the environment. We were stringent; we were resettling squatters to bank standards. There was untreated wastewater in Mauritius being dumped directly in the lagoon, so we cut through the coral," to install a pipeline to carry the wastewater out to sea.

"It wasn't rare coral," says Cave, but the project brought complaints from an environmental group. Her response: "Would you rather have the children swimming in raw sewage, eating contaminated fish?"

The staffers in Washington (and there are another 3,000 in more than 80 offices around the world) come from 141 different countries — 22 percent of employees are American — but they have more in common with each other than with the Washington outside their walls, where people tend to toss back their $3.50 Starbucks without feeling the guilt.

"You do start looking at your latte as someone's food consumption for the day," says Thomas, a lawyer who came to the bank four years ago from running the equal-opportunity program for 40,000 University of New Mexico students. "Working here has been so expanding in terms of world awareness."

More than most jobs, the World Bank is a lifestyle. People in the neighborhoods where professionals live say, "Oh, they're World Bank," like people used to say, "Oh, they're Methodist."

Pros: Excellent salary, from the low 80s upward past $200K, with little chance of termination; six weeks' vacation; "Rule of 80," which offers the chance to retire at age 55, with 25 years of service, at two-thirds salary, with follow-up consulting. Rewarding work. For some foreign staff, tuition help for the kids; job placement help for your spouse. No U.S. income taxes for foreigners. (For Americans, the bank reimburses some of that tax bill to equalize salaries.)

Cons: Travel a third of the year, for 40 percent of professional staff; videoconference meetings at 3 a.m. with Jakarta; long days; malaria; missing years of school plays and teacher conferences; no local roots; glass ceiling for program assistants; "all the damn paperwork," says Xavier Coll, who is vice president of human resources.

When Wall Street wizard Wolfensohn came to the bank in 1995, he badgered the bankers to get in touch with their humanity. "You measure success by the smile on a child's face," he would thunder. The technocrats would snort into their coffee.

Field work

He struggled to understand the bank's culture and forced longtime managers out to live in the client countries. "You don't find solutions riding the Washington subway. See the individual in poverty," Wolfensohn says, in an interview. "That individual passion is important. You don't relate to people clinically. You should let yourself go."

Frannie Leautier now runs the World Bank Institute. When Bangladesh wants to know how Yemen enrolls more girls in school, her part of the bank hooks them up. Born poor in Tanzania, she was the only girl in her engineering class of 60 boys, then got a master's and Ph.D. in infrastructure at MIT.

She went on her first mission to Peru, shortly after the capture of the notorious terrorist Abimael Guzmán. "They escorted us from the airport in jeeps with military guns, to a village where the girls had to walk two days to market," she recalls. "Now, it's 20 minutes. That's the difference in whether they get to school or not." She spent her time calculating the roughness of the road and how to pound the road base so water didn't wash it away.

"I had to change my math mind to look at a person's life," she says. "I was not trying to save five minutes for someone in congested traffic."

Dan Ritchie spent years as director for Iran and Northern Africa, but what he remembers with the most satisfaction is this: A generation ago, 1,500 farmers in Kenya got the hybrid corn seed he distributed as a Peace Corps volunteer, "and now the kids are a foot taller than their parents." He still visits. They honored him by naming a cow for his wife.

"Talking to the king of Morocco, it wasn't as much fun as providing that corn," he says.

Inside the soaring bank that is not a bank, the money is good. The paperwork is bad. Some days you get to work, and protesters are trying to storm the doors. The best rewards have faces.

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