World Bank's Loan Rangers
Thursday, June 9, 2005
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 shrugs. Let her mother think what she wants to think. She has given up trying to explain.
"People in Washington say to me, 'Where are your branches? I've never seen any in my neighborhood,' " says Viki Betancourt, a Cuban American who works on building the World Bank's relationship to the city in which it sits.
"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 their poverty.
The World Bank looms over Pennsylvania Avenue at 18th Street NW. Its facade of glass pulls the eye skyward, past 13 stories of white and silver and gray, to the dramatic curved roof. At ground level, squat Jersey barriers barricade the complex, an ugliness mandated by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a specific report, three years later, that al Qaeda had found the bank suitable for attack, a seemingly spectacular symbol of capitalistic arrogance.
The building, like the institution itself, strives to be transparent and often feels impenetrable. Nearly 7,000 people work in the building and three adjacent annexes, making this huge bureaucracy, after the federal and D.C. government, the largest employer in the city. 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 PhDs 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 are seriously cerebral. History Magazine is what is lined up on the top row of the bank's newsstand, not Jessica Simpson on the Us Weekly cover. 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 are 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.
Dan Ritchie, who has "flunked retirement" as a World Banker and remains, after 33 years, as a consultant, says, "We are not like my buddies at [law firm] Arnold and Porter. We go through the Jersey barriers to get here," past the occasional protestors and the possible terrorists, "and when we do, I believe we are on the side of the angels."