AS THE 1990s unfold, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund find themselves firmly accepted as enormously valuable global assets. Life has not always been so promising for these two institutions. Ten years ago, they and others were caught in the midst of Third World demands for North-South and even South-South dialogues on the creation of a "new international order." On top of that, oil-rich Arab countries -- led by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- actually withheld financial support from the bank and the fund in 1980 and were threatening to disrupt their annual meetings out of pique that the United States had prevailed -- as it should have -- in the fight to keep out the PLO. Later the World Bank and the IMF had to contend with an openly hostile Reagan administration, which questioned their strategy for economic development and growth in poor nations. In 1982 Mexico's near default on its external debt traumatized the bank and fund meetings in Toronto, opening a Third World debt crisis that threatened the international banking system and retarded growth in Latin America and other developing countries through the decade.
Today, much of the poisonous rhetoric that impeded cooperation between industrialized contributors and the developing nations has evaporated. So too have U.S. doubts about the value of the bank and the fund and their importance to America's foreign economic and security interests. The debt crisis, while not solved, does not now menace the banking system, thanks to bank and fund programs and advice for heavily indebted borrowers.
Now these institutions, standing on a much firmer financial footing than a decade ago, are being asked to respond to new challenges. Last week Czechoslovakia decided to rejoin the bank and the fund, which it helped originally to found. Along with Bulgaria's enrollment this week, that means that all the countries of Eastern Europe except Albania are now members. Even the Soviets are attending this year's meetings as observers. Helping these countries transform their failed socialist economies to market-oriented systems more closely aligned with the West is an important role for which these institutions are particularly well suited.
Similarly, the big industrial democracies will ask the bank and the fund to coordinate the financial aid package for the "front line" countries hit by the crisis in the Persian Gulf, and to assist the poorer nations whose oil-dependent economies are in turmoil thanks to Saddam Hussein. It's a big job for the two institutions, but the world has learned over the past two decades that they are indispensable.