'When did we become bad guys?' bankers ask

As protesters amass in the capital, World Bank employees feel unfairly maligned.

Most folks at the World Bank thought of themselves as "the good guys."

Working shoulder to shoulder with governments and relief groups, they aimed capital and creativity at disease and malady in developing countries.

But along the way, working at the World Bank morphed in some corners of public opinion into a job as sinister as punching the clock on the Death Star.

As planners and police brace for tomorrow's meeting, rank-and-file bureaucrats say they're left feeling unfairly maligned as anti-globalization protesters seize media attention.

"I personally feel very bad," says Dipak Dasgupta, an economist. "It's an inaccurate portrayal of what this institution does."

It's a case of idealists versus idealists, where one side wears ties and the other tie-dyed shirts. And some of the bank's employees, many of whom have spent years living in developing countries battling poverty and natural disasters, say they are astonished by the vilification they are receiving at the hands of college students from one of the richest countries in the world.

During a mid-morning break at headquarters this week, Mr. Dasgupta reflects on his 15-plus years with the Bank.

He recounts success stories from his time working in Bangladesh in the wake of starvation and cyclone from 1982 through 1987. "The land was so flat after the devastation. In the rainy season, all you [could] see is the water all over and little spots of land," he recalls.

Then there is Indonesia, where despite the political unrest of the past year, social reforms have made literacy virtually universal and increased food production to the point where the country is almost self-sufficient.

After living in developing countries under less-than-cushy conditions, Dasgupta is bewildered by the personal stamp protesters are putting on the dispute.

During his commute in from the Maryland suburbs, he drove past graffiti that read, "Drain banker's blood in the Potomac."

The radical message has shaken some employees, most of whom have been ordered to stay far away from downtown until Tuesday, when the Bank reopens for regular business.

"I have a lot of sympathy for what the protesters are talking about, but a lot of it is not accurate," Dasgupta says.

Machiavellian institution?

Critics say the Bank is trying to manipulate the global economy. It mandates conditions on loans that essentially create domestic policy in borrower nations, subverting democracy. They say the money ends up benefiting large corporations, who trample worker rights and the environment.

"So much of our lending is in social areas - this is what we do," explains three-year employee Caroline Farah. An idealistic fervor to help people is "why we aren't interested in working in the private sector," says the Middle East and North Africa specialist. "A lot of people here could be making a lot more money on Wall Street."

Founded in 1944, the World Bank is made up of five institutions that loan money, provide financing in countries' private sectors, and encourage foreign investment. Worldwide, the Bank employs 11,310 people.

Even its harshest critics do not deny the institution its human face. "There are good people within the World Bank, the problem is they are trapped in an institution that does not allow them to do any good," says Neil Tangri of Essential Action, a corporate watchdog group affiliated with Ralph Nader.

"They like to talk about providing drinking water, providing health projects, but it's window dressing," Mr. Tangri says.

He also claims the World Bank stifles differing viewpoints among its employees. "There is a lack of democracy," Tangri says.

Bank employees say that's untrue. "All the things they are protesting, we debate too," says Ms. Farah, as yellow police tape waves in the breeze outside the World Bank's glass atrium and police man security checkpoints in the lead up to tomorrow.

"We are owned by 183 countries, publish annual reports, and are scrutinized in every academic and technical forum in the world. How can we not be democratic?" asks spokesman Phillip Hay.

My friends are protesters

Another World Bank employee, who asked that his name not be used, says the kind of person with the idealism to work at the Bank understands the protesters' message - and says that in some cases, the gulf between those outside the Bank and inside is narrow.

"I saw one of my friends being arrested on the news" during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, he says.

"There are a lot of valid criticisms ... but a ton of stuff ... is just so off base that it makes it hard for people to take seriously."

Accurate or not, the external debate, the employee suggests, may be changing internal policy.

"Having this chaos outside the front door is causing more debate within the bank. I don't know how high it will go at the policy level, but they are soliciting outside viewpoints," the employee says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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