Washington is hardly a center of international finance. But, ironically, that characteristic has now played a part in bringing a new worldwide organization of bankers to town.

The Institute of International Finance--now being set up in Northwest Washington--grew out of the Third World debt crisis that shook the world of international banking last year. Its lofty aim is to help stop another debt crisis in the future.

To that end, the 37 founding members of the institute hope that hundreds of normally competitive banks and bankers can be persuaded to pool their resources and support a joint effort to make international lending less risky for each of them. They hope to do this by collecting more information about the developing nations to which they are lending and by sharing some of the information that each of them already has.

The IIF initially was expected to serve mainly as a data-collection service--with banks pooling information about the loans they make, to help build up a total picture of the indebtedness of individual nations. But more recently the commercial banks have made clear that they do not want to share sensitive information about their overseas exposure, even via a jointly owned institution. One other likely activity will be to send teams of professional economists to borrowing nations to report on their economic position in more detail than normally is done by many lenders.

The institute is coming to Washington because its founding members, which include banks from the United States, Europe, Japan and Brazil, wanted to make sure that it was not dominated by the members of any single financial center. If it were based in New York, for example, it likely would have been seen by foreigners as a captive of the U.S. banks, explained David Devlin of Citibank, who has recently been organizing an IIF membership drive.

Bankers from elsewhere already are suspicious that the U.S. banks have won closer relationships with two key international agencies--the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank--than European or Japanese banks have, simply because the two agencies are based on the U.S. banks' home turf.

That leads to another plus for Washington: the IMF and World Bank presence in town. The IMF has been in the forefront of recent debt negotiations, while the World Bank lends billions of dollars a year to the Third World and has considerable expertise and information about developing nations. Both are seen by bankers as potential sources of key information. The IMF is of particular interest to big lenders because of its role in recent financial rescue packages--in which it has pushed commercial banks forcefully and publicly to keep on lending to debtor nations in difficulty.

Some of those involved in the institute hope its proximity to the IMF will put it in a good position to share that institution's knowledge. However, the IMF will likely be very cautious about telling bankers things that its member countries may prefer them not to know, just as commercial bankers are cautious about talking to each other.

The relationship between the private IIF and the IMF, whose responsibilities are to its 146 member nations, is likely to come under close scrutiny. The IMF itself is building up a system of better information on debts. One source said he expected IIF members would be most eager to have access to the fund's economic analysis of individual nations, rather than simply to the debt figures. But it would be surprising if the IMF agreed to this.

The embryonic Institute is not intended to be "an information exchange," according to William S. Ogden, former vice chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and chairman of the institute's interim board of directors. However, he agreed that "data collection is part of the way the institute will accomplish its objectives" of making lenders better informed and encouraging borrowing nations to pursue prudent policies.

Many bankers have talked of the institute as one way to help fill the information gap that was revealed when the debt crisis began last year. The problems with this role are twofold: first, collecting and collating raw data is expensive, and second, it raises the difficult question of how much banks are willing to tell each other. Ogden said member banks will not be pressured into releasing commercial information. Others say the institute will rely heavily on data supplied directly to regulators.

He described the institute as a "private-sector initiative, basically aimed at the future," whose prime objective is to "encourage borrowing countries to make an earlier adjustment" to economic troubles, rather than waiting until bankers become frightened and policy changes are forced upon the borrowers. Data collection is just one element in this, he said.

When the crisis erupted last year, it quickly became clear that there were vast gaps in the information that banks had about countries to which they had lent millions and, in some cases, billions of dollars. Often, it turned out that neither governments, commercial banks, nor the international agencies knew just how much money was at stake in a particular nation. And as one country after another declared that they would be unable to repay debts on time, or to keep up interest payments without new loans, bankers--particularly from small and regional banks--regretted their earlier eagerness to shovel out money to countries about which they knew very little.

Most of the major international banks have economics departments that survey debtor nations to determine which might be a good risk. But such departments are generally quite small. They often do not have the influence necessary to overrule eager lending officers. In the free-lending days of the 1970s--when hundreds of banks were joining the international lending game each year and competition between them was intense--warnings of the potential dangers of lending to Third World nations fell on deaf ears.

Now, the free-lending attitudes of the 1970s have been replaced by a widespread reluctance to increase overseas loans, and by a scramble to get out wherever possible. Banks that expect to stay in the international business would like to make it safer. They hope the institute can help.

Any commercial banks and financial institutions that lend money overseas on their own account will be eligible to join the institute. They will likely range from very small regional and local banks to huge money-center banks in New York, London and other financial centers. There will be three categories of members: large banks, which will pay about $75,000 a year in membership fees; medium-sized banks, paying about $25,000; and small banks, paying between $7,000 and $8,000. All of these figures are tentative, and include the basic $5,000 that will be charged to all, said Devlin. The membership categories will also have to be fairly broad, so that banks do not have to reveal exactly how much exposure they have overseas.

Hundreds of applications already have been sent out to banks around the world. It is hoped that between 200 and 400 will join this summer, Devlin said, explaining that the more banks that join and pay the initial $5,000 fee, the less the institute will charge for its overall membership fee. Voting rights will be proportional to dues.

Devlin also stressed that the institute decided early on that it did not want "to be a white man's club." For this reason, applications have been sent to nations with relatively undeveloped financial sectors. Most of them have at least one commercial bank that gets involved in overseas lending, even if this is just for purposes of trade finance, he said.

Although the institute's founding members first agreed to go ahead more than six months ago, the organization does not yet have a managing director, permanent staff or a work program. For the last few months, some of the leading banks have lent staff members, such as Devlin, to begin setting up the operation. He has hired students and temporary staff to do secretarial work until a permanent work force is established.

Until a managing director is appointed, however, no decisions will be made on how the institute should operate. Ogden said he hoped the organization would be fully operational by the end of this year. He and other founders believe that the character and views of the managing director will largely shape the organization and could well determine its success or failure.

For this reason, there has been a long search for the right person. The institute would reportedly be willing to pay a salary of several hundred thousand dollars a year. One source said the institute's interim board would offer "whatever it takes" to get the "world-class guy" it thinks is needed.

He (there do not seem to be any female candidates on the list) will likely be a European who is well known in the international financial world. "You need someone with great stature" to persuade bankers, foreign government officials and IMF and World Bank officials that the institute is a place to be reckoned with, said one source, who asked not to be named.

The problem is that many of the obvious candidates would probably think twice before accepting the job with a new, unproven organization.

But the search reportedly is almost over, however, and the managing director will finally be named at the next meeting of the interim board in Tokyo next week. Shortly after that, hiring will start. Devlin expects a total staff of about 40 people, with an annual budget of about $5 million.

One source acknowledged that this was "pretty thin" for the kind of aim that the IIF has. It would be almost impossible, for example, for a staff of this size to duplicate the kind of analytic work and fact-finding missions that the IMF does, with its staff of more than 1,000. But Devlin said founding members hope that member banks will channel some of their resources, apart from the membership fee, into the institute.