Like plutocratic swallows returning to the Capistrano of capitalism, some 10,000 bankers, finance ministers, economic reporters and other minions of finance from 150 countries have descended on Washington this week for the annual meeting of the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund, opening today. But this year, there's a difference -- a certain unpleasantness hanging in the rarefied air.

On the agenda, as usual, are matters of such throat-clearing global gravitas as Eastern European economies, the oil crisis and the stratospheric ballooning of Third World debt, all to be discussed at caviar-fueled receptions costing nearly as much as the gross national products of some equatorial countries.

At the World Bank bulletin boards listing bargain-rate Jaguar sedans and rental villas in the south of France, in the executive dining room where bank vice presidents discourse over cru bourgeois claret and jarrets de veau a` la Printaniere, at the Sheraton Washington hotel, imprisoned daily this week by a gridlock of stretch limousines, there are raised eyebrows and muttered exclamations in French, Portuguese and Italian.

That is because this year a discomfiting voice is shouting on the sidelines, asking distinctly impolite questions about why the bank -- which exists in principle to help the world's sick and starving -- seems to be itself so very well nourished.

The voice is crisply British. It belongs to a former World Bank official named Michael Irwin, and against the clubby opulence of this week's festivities, it resonates with embarrassing conviction. Last week, as dark-suited dignitaries of the dollar, yen and mark were already converging on the convention site, Irwin was holding forth at a crosstown seminar, accusing the bank of indulging itself with "inflated salaries" and "extravagant benefit packages." The bank, he said, wastes money in ways large and petty -- including its legendary penchant for first-class travel -- then hides its extravagance from the world with an arrogant and compulsive obsession with secrecy.

"I know one can explain why the bank makes a net profit of $1 billion, most of which it spends on itself," Irwin says. "But I feel it's immoral and hypocritical and at the expense of the world's poor."

"Poverty reduction," he says, "is the last thing on most World Bank bureaucrats' minds."

Until March 30, Irwin, 59, was director of the bank's health services department, a $95,000-a-year (tax-free) division chief standing roughly 80th in the bank's complex hierarchy. He had also served briefly as its vice president for personnel. He was a 32-year veteran of the United Nations system, and by all accounts was capable in his job, respected by his colleagues and well liked by his staff. But two days before April Fool's Day, he submitted his resignation by way of a thundering broadside in the Wall Street Journal, calling the bank a "bloated and overpaid bureaucracy" characterized by "wasteful practices, poor management and unjustified arrogance."

There were other charges -- cronyism in promotions, favoritism in handing out overpriced consulting contracts, excessive secrecy. But the most disquieting aspect of Irwin's statements was that anything had surfaced in print at all.

The bank has come under fire increasingly in recent years, but always from outsiders -- environmentalists claiming ecological devastation from some bank-financed development projects, conservatives complaining that bank lending has subsidized repressive Marxist regimes, liberals charging the bank with interfering with the sovereignty of Third World economies. World Bank officials, historically, have shrugged off much of this as well-intentioned but naive perspectives of people not forced to deal with global economic and political realities.

Irwin is different. He's an insider, and he's broken an insider's rule. Whatever reservations the 6,000 multinational employees of the World Bank may have about the $128 billion-a-year institution they work for, the one unspoken commandment to which they all adhere without question is that one never, never goes public.

"It's like a blood oath here," said one senior bank official, who typically insisted on anonymity. "And Irwin, while he was only here for a year, was quite a capable fellow, really. Knew the business. Quite respectable background."

"This all seems totally out of character for him," said another bank executive. "No one can imagine why in the world he's doing this."

Outrage and Public Silence Whatever his motives, Michael Irwin is clearly enjoying himself -- and he is drawing some blood.

Since the Journal article, Irwin -- and his allegations -- have appeared almost monthly in British journals like the Economist, the Spectator and the Observer. The June issue of the Washington Monthly, in a piece called "Let Them Eat Honey-Roasted Peanuts (If you thought the World Bank spent most of its energy fighting poverty in the Third World, think again)" made public a hilarious salvo of intra-bank memos from staffers shrilly outraged by Irwin's suggestion that continued first-class travel by the bank's globe-trotting executives might be inappropriate for an institution whose stated goal is the reduction of poverty. (One executive, decrying Irwin's "chilling" proposal, gravely predicted that if staffers were forced to fly business class, there would be an increase in the number of "travel-induced strokes.")

At his speech Thursday at the Cato Institute, he cited the bank's own figures showing that a $148 million staff reorganization, launched three years ago in the name of economy and efficiency, had produced neither, resulting primarily in "golden handshake" separation payments averaging $291,000 for 418 bank dischargees.

As the financial arm of the United Nations, the World Bank and its affiliate agencies use the credit of their member countries to borrow money at preferred rates on world financial markets and relend it at higher rates for development projects -- airports, irrigation systems, highways -- in Third World countries that might not otherwise get credit. The profit on those transactions -- roughly $1 billion for each of the past five years -- is used for the operation of the bank. Irwin says that amount is unconscionable, that it buys luxuries ultimately paid for by the world's poor.

If the bank was ever conceived as an economic Peace Corps, he says, it is now clearly something else again.

With each Irwin article and charge, World Bank officials -- so hypersensitive to image that their lawyers once attempted to halt production of a board game called World Bank -- have, in the words of one bank subprofessional, "gone ballistic." There have been "countless meetings and much hand-wringing" about Irwin since, according to another. So stung has the bank been that a public relations offensive has been planned for the coming year, including a series of public forums and symposiums about the bank in cities around the United States. Outwardly, however, World Bank officials have maintained something of a pained silence, apparently preferring not to dignify Irwin's comments with a formal reply.

"These are strong and very bitter criticisms," says Tim Cullen, public affairs chief for the bank. "We are a large and powerful institution and it is easy for people to perceive us as arrogant." While not specifically denying any of Irwin's charges, he said Irwin had overstated a number of things and confused others.

"Irwin implies that people in the bank fly first class all the time, for example," Cullen said. "Last year only about half the staff trips were first class," largely, he said, "those of more than nine hours." Those trips, he said, were necessary "because in many places in the Third World if you don't fly first class you can be subject to overbooking. They also tend to lose your luggage."

Any money lost by the bank through such debatable practices as first-class travel and highly paid consultancies, he said, is practically insignificant compared to the vast sums the bank raises annually for Third World projects.

As for the symbolic appropriateness of lavish perquisites within an agency dedicated to the alleviation of poverty, Cullen said, "There are different perspectives on these things." The bank, he said, does what it must to recruit and keep qualified people in a competitive global job market. "But the whole focus of our work is fighting poverty."

A U.N. Love Affair Whatever an institutional whistle-blower is supposed to look like, it's probably not Michael Irwin, whose wavy silver hair, gold and tortoise-shell glasses and quiet demeanor call more to mind the sort of family doctor who once made house calls. In fact, he once did. The son of a London surgeon who followed his father into medicine, he joined the medical staff of the United Nations in 1957 after two years of general practice in England. Before joining the World Bank last year, he served for 32 years with the U.N., including two separate four-year terms in New York as director of its medical services, searching out pediatricians in Khartoum, Sudan, and hospitals in Kampala, Uganda, for the the far-flung U.N. staff overseas. He also held a number of non-medical administrative positions, including deputy in charge of all aid programs in the U.N.'s Karachi, Pakistan, office and four years as the UNICEF representative in Bangladesh.

It is his lifelong love affair with the U.N., Irwin explains, that lies at the heart of his differences with the World Bank. Though it is in every meaningful sense a United Nations agency, whose employees carry special U.N. passports, he was "informed countless times that 'the bank is not part of the U.N. "common system," ' and not bound by their rules."

Irwin says the bank's non-U.S. staffers in Washington generally receive tax-free salaries at least 20 percent higher than those of their U.N. colleagues working in the more expensive New York area. "U.N. assistant secretary generals in New York currently receive annual net salaries of about $96,000," he said, "while vice presidents of the bank, the equivalent level, get from $111,860 to $134,240."

Irwin delivers these declarations softly, in a tone of wounded wonder, while fingering stacks of evidentiary World Bank documents ("I keep impeccable records -- the vice of a bureaucrat") that lie piled atop his dining room table. He is at home in the rent-controlled apartment at 89th Street and Central Park West in Manhattan that has been his principal address for the past 22 years. A place of somber colors and modest furnishings, it is noticeably devoid of the splashy native art displays and here-I-am-in-Ouagadougou photos that more typically adorn the dwellings of World Bank professionals, or for that matter foreign correspondents. It would seem to be the habitat of a man who cares little for money or possessions -- the sort of man who can say earnestly, as Irwin is wont to do, that the best four years of his life were those he spent in Bangladesh.

Irwin acknowledges, however, that it was partly the prospect of more money that led him to the World Bank in the first place.

The privileged nature of the institution permitted him to take early retirement from the United Nations, after 32 years there, and draw almost full pension, while being paid a full salary by the bank.

"When I left the U.N. I was making $70,000 net {tax-free}. I went into a job at the World Bank paying $80,000 net. But within a month of joining the bank my salary rose. I didn't know it then, but every May 1 everyone in the bank gets a raise which usually exceeds the cost-of-living increase. That year salaries went up from 7 to 17 percent -- an average of 11 percent. So I was now making $95,000 -- $25,000 more than I'd made at the U.N. for doing exactly the same work. Only, as I was to discover, I could complete my work at the bank in half a day."

Meanwhile, he had begun receiving his U.N. pension: $34,000 net per year, plus a lump-sum payment of $230,000 at the time of his leaving.

His differences with the bank, Irwin says, "didn't hit me all the same day. It just sort of developed over the summer and fall of last year. ... As I settled in I began to discover things."

Though it holds itself aloof as an elite organization of international civil servants, Irwin said, he discovered the bank was "hopelessly inefficient."

A $3,000-per-day personnel consultant hired by the bank reported gridlock in the upper management grades. Despite an avowed policy of "transparency" in all its actions, Irwin said, bank staffers appear obsessed with secrecy, and maintain a system of burn bags, shredders ("we had three in my office alone") and document classification that, he says, appears designed primarily to keep the bank's governing executive board from knowing what's going on.

But the bulk of Irwin's criticism of the bank is directed toward what he sees as the hypocrisy of an institution prescribing financial discipline for developing countries and mouthing pieties about poverty while showering luxuries on itself.

In his years of travel in the Third World, Irwin said, he had noticed that "the World Bank representative always seemed to have the best house in town" (always air-conditioned, often with pools or tennis courts) but "since normal U.N. agencies don't provide paid housing it just never occurred to me that the World Bank did."

In Washington he found paid luxury housing overseas was only part of a "lavish" system of staff benefits that include:

An annual salary supplement of up to $3,000 for anyone whose spouse earns less than $10,000 a year.

An annual subsidy of $420 for each dependent child of a bank professional.

Up to $5,480 per child in education grants, from age 5 to age 24, to permit non-U.S. staffers to send their children to private schools.

Free travel for non-U.S. staff and their families to their home countries and back, flying first class if they go every three years, or business class if they go every two. They also get $1,070 in home-leave pocket money for themselves and $534 for their spouses and for each dependent child.

Here in Washington there is even a World Bank country club -- Bretton Woods, deep in Montgomery County -- where bank staffers golf, swim and generally luxuriate in heavily subsidized surroundings light-years from the Third World poverty they are employed to ease.

"World Bank staff, living and working comfortably ... and venturing forth in luxury ... are out of touch with both the realities and the causes of poverty in the Third World," Irwin said, and "strikingly parallel the Third World's own senior bureaucrats whose padded salaries have contributed to the economic ruin of their own nations."

Ultimately, he decided, "I just couldn't be a part of that any longer."

The question of bank staffers being out of touch is "potentially a very serious problem," acknowledges Tim Cullen of the bank's information office. "We make every effort to make sure that the bank listens to people ... through increasing involvement with NGOs." NGO is World Bank argot for non-governmental organization.

Why does the bank think Irwin is going after them?

"I'm not going to say anything about that," Cullen said, his voice dropping. "One picks up bits and pieces, hears things. But to say anything about that would smear Dr. Irwin. Is it a smear when something's true? I don't know. ... At any rate, we don't want to appear to be smearing anyone, so I won't say anything more about it. I don't mean to wave innuendo in front of you... ."

Told of Cullen's comments, Irwin laughed. He said he has no secrets and no skeletons and denies he has any vendetta against the bank. "It's in my past and I don't care if I ever say another word about it," he said. But at the Cato Institute he alluded to a cache of bank documents he took with him ("quite legally, by the way") that might make the basis for a book on the bank "if I had the patience to write it."

Just what he hopes to achieve by his efforts he's not entirely sure.

"I've always been a bit of a liberal, a rebel if you will," he says. As a youth in Britain he was the type "who wrote letters to pacifist journals and demonstrated against capital punishment. I just never felt comfortable in the atmosphere of the bank. I think it was a sense of annoyance that this was a bunch of people ... and good people, many of them -- some of whom deserve their high salaries -- but people not acting the way people in a U.N. agency should. Being too secretive, too arrogant. I don't know. Maybe 'public service' is a stupid expression to use," but while many people criticize the World Bank for its programs "I've never heard anyone make these issues public and call the bank to account this way."

Maybe, he says, his campaign against the bank has been "a product of ego. There's a certain excitement in tilting at windmills. ... All I know is that since I left I've felt much better about things. And I can sleep at night."

In the months since leaving the bank, he says, he's finished a novel ("not about the bank") and next month will travel to London to join a private aid agency he hopes will send him back to work in Bangladesh. He'll be making one-third the salary he gave up at the World Bank.

What reaction has he heard from the bank? "A number of my colleagues told me they were grateful for what I did, but I think the overall reaction was shock. It's a matter of perspectives. Most people at the bank just can't imagine anyone willingly giving up that life."