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."

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

They are intimidatingly smart. It is 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, but if you have to ask . . . .) Professional staffers don't even bother to trade on this, the way other Washingtonians do, because they're all elite.

"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."

"There is a fierce and unguarded independence in what they think," says Xavier Coll, who is vice president of human resources and switches among English, French and Spanish, depending on who walks into his office during an interview. "We can be a rebellious bunch. We don't like to be told what to do. It is a very curious thing. But in the end there is tremendous loyalty to the institution and the mission."

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?"

In his first meeting with the staff last Wednesday, Wolfowitz tried to reassure his new employees on this point. 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.

Debits and Credits

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 directly to its lending and knowledge-sharing in those countries.

The 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 the people, ruining the environment and strangling poor nations with massive debt. The 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."

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

"Bank Swirled," an annual staff satirical magazine, tried to help this year with a feature mimicking the health service department's frequent bulletins offering Q&A advice:

"You visit a borrower country to attend an important meeting. Suddenly, you find yourself surrounded by angry, shouting people who don't work for you. Chances are, you're being Faced with Reality."

"What is reality?"

"Anything outside the Bank. You can find people living in reality in every country, if you look hard enough. They spotted you the moment you deplaned."

"Why are they shouting nasty things at me?"

"They don't understand why your first class air travel, chauffeured cars, tailored suits, and 5-star hotel accommodations are a vital part of rescuing them from poverty."

"Pause to reflect. . . . Have your policies opened the door for multinational corporations to plunder their natural resources and turn their country into a toxic wasteland? Have your economic prescriptions condemned them to a lifetime of insurmountable debt? Take a deep breath, forgive yourself and move on to your next project."

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.

World Bankers feel the guilt. The institution itself owes its existence to the collective guilt of rich nations, along with altruism or self-interest, depending on which evolutionary philosopher you believe.

"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."

At first, all the kissing startled her. "Twice on the cheek if you are European, three times if you are Dutch or Belgian," she explains, "and coming from my [workplace] culture, where you're not allowed to touch anyone anymore! Or you would meet someone, and she would say, 'My name is Swinitha. My colonial name is Grace.' Or someone would just say, casually, you know, 'When I was growing up in Colombia, you never washed your car. If you did, you wouldn't be able to see that someone had tampered with it and maybe put a bomb in it.' And I would go, 'Oh. Wow.' "

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.)

Beer and wine in the company cafeteria, DVD rental machine and dry cleaner on premises, lovely gift shop in case you forgot the wife's birthday while "on mission" in some client country.

Cons: Travel a third of the year, for 40 percent of professional staff; videoconference meetings at 3 a.m. with Jakarta; long days; losing that generous vacation time at the end of the year if you haven't used it; malaria; missing years of school plays and teacher conferences; no local roots; glass ceiling for program assistants; "all the damn paperwork," says Coll.

How the Place Works: Set up after World War II to finance the reconstruction of Europe, the World Bank is a conglomerate of five interconnected organizations. It is owned, essentially, by the 184 countries, both developed and developing, that are members. (The United States is the largest shareholder, with a 16 percent stake, which is why, by convention, the American president gets to pick the World Bank president, something that drives the critics crazy.) When it was formed, the countries kicked money into a pot, and the richest member nations still make an annual contribution.

To raise the bulk of the $20 billion it lends each year, the bank borrows on the global capital markets, and then re-lends the money back out to governments of developing countries for any kind of project aimed at reducing poverty.

Middle-income countries, like Brazil, India and China, get to borrow at rates and terms more favorable than the private market. The poorest countries -- more than 80, including most of Africa -- get outright grants or interest-free loans, which they have 35 and 40 years to repay.

Before doling out the money, the bank's board makes sure the projects are in keeping with the bank's development goals -- aims such as ensuring primary education for all children, establishing equal rights for women, fighting corruption, ending poverty and hunger and tackling disease. Then it dispatches bank staff to monitor and offer technical help to the governments.

The project review and monitoring are where all the PhDs come in. The economists used to run the show, along with the engineers, rural agronomists and technological infrastructure types. They had a tendency to get all wonky, burrowing deep into Malthusian-principle-land.

These days, their influence is checked by the sociologists and education, health and communications experts. Building civil society and good governance -- it's not called regime change -- are seen as necessary to sustain true economic growth.

One Person at a Time

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.

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 PhD in infrastructure at MIT.

She went on her first mission to Peru, shortly after the capture of the notorious terrorist Abimael Guzman. "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.

The formidable World Bank building and annexes house nearly 7,000 employees, making it the capital's third largest employer. It is also one of the more controversial. Umou Bazzaz, from Sierra Leone, is one of the thousands of staffers who came from abroad."I believe we are on the side of the angels," says Dan Ritchie, a "retired" World Banker."Working here has been so expanding in terms of world awareness," says Anne B. Thomas.The World Bank has been the site of plenty of protests outside, but the naming of Paul Wolfowitz, left, as president prompted dissension inside the building.The Kenya Staff Association at the World Bank performs during the bank's Global Showcase last month. The nearly 7,000 staffers in Washington hail from 141 countries.