IT IS THE FATE of reformists to have eggs lobbed at them from all sides. They cannot back up against a #line missing# bate; those walls are manned by people whose dislike of each other is exceeded only by their mutual contempt for the softies in the middle. Awkward, for an individual reformist. Much worse if you happen to be the world's largest development bank, your offices in a city with an unlimited supply of eggs.

Since the World Bank opened its doors in Washington in 1946, it has never been short of critics. For the past 10 years or so, the most vociferous have been right wingers, complaining that aid to governments promotes state socialism and stifles private initiative. But the loudest blasts used to come from the left, and Cheryl Payer's book sounds a nostalgic echo. Although she draws on some new material and writes with freshness and verve, her message is unmistakably old-fashioned.

As in the 1960s critique, the World Bank is portrayed as an agent of Western interests, especially of multinational companies, and it is concerned to make countries safe for foreign investors, often in cahoots with the International Monetary Fund (to which Payer has devoted an earlier book). Mostly, the Bank and the IMF seem to be supporting corrupt elites in their client countries; at one point, though, Payer has the bank intensifying its "campaign against national industry, which the Bank and the IMF have been waging--for a long time." This monopoly theme is developed: the bank insists on state utilities being run on capitalist lines because "they can thus be effectively prevented from presenting any effective competition to private enterprise."

The conspiracy clearly runs as deep as ever (in which case right-wing critics should keep quiet, the bank is still doing a great job). Yet Payer appears not to recognize how much has changed since the 1960s. Many developing countries would now be better placed if, to sustain their growth in the past decade, they had relied more on foreign investment and less on foreign bank loans. If Exxon and Mobil rather than Chase and CitiBank had financed Mexico's oil development, the profits made by the oil companies would at least have been earned before being repatriated, and would fluctuate in line with the oil price. Instead, Mexico has been left with the crushing burden of quarterly interest payments, their weight unrelated to its ability to pay.

Even when the bank is helping to build schools and clinics, Payer is quick to spot imperialism's shadow. While admitting that "some poor people do benefit from some projects" she argues that many more are trapped in their poverty because the bank prefers lending money to corrupt and unjust governments, since they are the ones "that offer favorable conditions for foreign investment." This really is nonsense. India has probably done more than any other developing country to obstruct foreign investment: its restrictions are labyrinthine in their complexity. India is also the world's biggest democracy. It is also the bank's biggest client. It fits uneasily with Payer's reasoning; in fact, it destroys it.

Tails are not allowed to wag dogs in Robert Ayres' book. He stands squarely in the middle ground, adopting "a realist's defense of the Bank as a reformist institution." The reform that most interests him is the bank's attempt to start tackling poverty directly, instead of waiting for the benefits of economic growth to "trickle down" to the poor. The change of approach will always be associated with Robert McNamara, the bank's president from 1968 until 1981, and particularly with a speech he made in Nairobi in 1973. Since then the Bank has devoted much of its effort and money to rural development, and other programs that directly affect the poor.

Most of these investments take years to produce results that are anyway hard to quantify. He believes that the bank's commitment to antipoverty work never ran as deep as some McNamara rhetoric implied. But nor was it so shallow that it could be easily uprooted. And certainly not by the new president, Tom Clausen from the Bank of America: Ayres thinks he is determined to maintain much of the anti-poverty emphasis of his predecessor.

Under Robert Ayres' microscope, the World Bank emerges with the kind of low-key credit that a cautious reformist intends as high praise. His book is thorough, his approach measured: there are no conspiracies, no monoliths, no big failures (and no big successes, either). It sounds quite plausible, and it is.