Two banks for the poor mark 50 years of work

THIS month's 50th anniversary of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is cause for celebration among some in the business of uplifting the poorer nations, but their cheers have been matched by some jeers.

Washington is home to the world's two most powerful financial organizations, and has been the focal point for a five-decade review of the institutions set up at Bretton Woods, N.H. (Story, Page 14). The commemorations have reflected a very divided appraisal.

While international dignataries filed into handsomely appointed rooms at the United States State Department to ponder the future of global finance and development at a special conference last week, Greenpeace environmental activists scaled a World Bank building to hang a banner depicting a monster called ``World Bankenstein,'' and demanding ``No Dollars for Destruction.''

But what one Bank official testily calls ``harping and carping'' by opponents seems to have brought about some changes in the globe's largest lending institutions.

In the past several years, under pressure from a host of interest groups, the World Bank has been anxious to show a devotion to alleviating poverty, aiding women in development, avoiding environmental harm, and enabling grass-roots groups to organize self-help activities. The Bank's annual reports on development highlight these efforts (this year's focused on infrastructure - the roads, waterways, and electrical grids necessary for prosperity).

And there has been admission of wrong-doing. Last week, World Bank President Lewis Preston conceded that ``the mistake the bank has paid the higest price for is not recognizing the importance of the environment.''

In its role, the World Bank gives advice, technical assistance, and financial aid to countries eager for development.

The IMF helps developing nations stablize their currencies with special funds. Both organization are controlled mainly by wealthy nations, with the US in the lead.

But too often, the Bank launches a public-relations war to combat constructive criticism, says Ross Hammond of the Washington-based Development Group for Alternative Priorities, one of 70 US-based groups in the so-called Fifty Years is Enough Campaign.

Members of the campaign, who also work the press by sending out releases from one of this town's most active fax machines, include ecologists, Roman Catholic priests, agricultural advocates, economists, famine relief workers, and women's groups. Their complaints are a mixed bag - including blasts that the Bank is overfunded and overstaffed to claims that it is pouring money into boondoggle projects and helping to bankroll dictators.

Most of their charges ``border on being invalid to pure rubbish,'' counters Armeane Choksi, a vice president of the World Bank and chairman of its 50th anniversary committee. He resents most of what he hears from ``single-issue critics who do not have the accountability and responsibility we have.''

Mr. Choksi, a 20-year bank veteran of financing development in the world's poorest countries, concedes that the ``bank has received some legitimate criticism in the past, but development is a risky business.'' He describes the ``economic, social, and political dimensions'' to bank operations. ``There are difficult decisions and difficult trade-offs.''

The bank's ill-fated policies have cost it credibility. For example, its 1985 decision to fund a dam along India's Narmada River - a $450 million outlay - was a disaster that incurred the wrath of the local population, and proceeded despite warnings from the Bank's own analysts. This March, the Bank finally walked away from the project. (India has continued it.)

Here's how World Bank and IMF officials and independent analysts respond to two often-heard criticisms:

CHARGE: The World Bank's bureaucracy is bloated; its staff pays more attention to internal politics than to global development needs.

``They've made it much more complex than it needs to be because they have all of these bureaucrats in one place,'' Mr. Hammond says. Affording local communities and organizations the opportuntity to direct their own development projects ``runs counter to the whole [World Bank] culture of moving money through the bureaucracy.''

An internal review of the Bank's lending in 1992 determined that 37.5 percent of the Bank's portfolio of loans did not meet its own rate-of-return requirements, and that many loans were approved even after the bank's own experts documented their objections to the projects.

Referring to a ``culture of approval,'' a term coined in the 1992 internal review, Hammond says ``there is pressure within the institution [for loan officers] to search out large government agencies in the developing world that are capable of absorbing vast sums, and then win the approval of the Bank's board [for the loan].'' The bigger the loan approved, the better chances are for promotion within the Bank. Work in the Middle East division, for example, is less desirable than work in the Latin American division, he says, where the loans are greater. ``Africa is considered Siberia because the money is smaller,'' he says.

CHARGE: The IMF is a drill sargeant, barking the same marching orders to all governments, regardless of their special circumstances.

Over the years, economists have chided the IMF for exacting painful conditions on governments before they are eligible for financial assistance from the Fund. Fund requirements - so-called austerity measures - that have resulted in such results as petrol price hikes and reduced food subsidies have sparked riots from Venezuela to Jordan.

The most recent, celebrated, and perhaps highest-stake example is in Russia, where the resurgence of extremist, antireformist politicians made anti-IMF, anti-Western rhetoric part of their rallying cry.

Stanley Black, economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, addresses the issue of IMF flexibility in a report by an independent group of international figures who formed the Bretton Woods Commission this year. The IMF's lending policies, he argues, are increasingly tailored to clients' needs.

``As complaints from developing countries about the harsh or inappropriate nature of IMF conditionality mounted,'' Mr. Black asserts, the Fund has revamped its approach. One example he cites is that ``concern over the effects of IMF programs on the distribution of income, such as cuts in food subsidies, has led the Fund to suggest that such policies be applied only gradually and that countries focus direct aid toward poor groups in society.''

Henry Owen, a former international economics adviser during the Carter administration and a member of Bretton Woods Commission, says ``the the IMF is blamed for doling out funds too slowly,'' after a laborious period in which borrowers prove they will follow a prescribed path of fiscal and/or monetary reforms. But, he says, ``if you show too much eagerness to lend money, the leverage to make loans conditional is lost because the borrower has no incentive to change if he assumes he's going to get the money anyway.'' Economic reforms are ``only likely to happen,'' he says, if the IMF continues on a measured course.

wHAT is the direction for the Bank and IMF over the next fifty years, assuming they are still around? Of the Bank, Mr. Owen, now a senior adviser to Salomon Brothers, says the most pressing concern is to help finance the closure and replacement of dangerous and aging nuclear power plants in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

He also says the Bank should help build and expand the private sector in developing countries and scale down its operations as commercial financing takes on more of a role in helping less-developed countries.

``Of course the Bank and the Fund will be here in 50 years,'' a Bank official says. After extoling the virtues of the work done by the Bank and IMF, he quips, ``besides, the critics won't go that far, or they'll find themselves out of a job.''

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