Of the World Bank and Washington Parties

Last evening and this afternoon I was in Washington, D.C. That would be an unremarkable statement, since I work in Washington. But I am not often there in the evening and even less often on a Saturday afternoon. I was in Washington at those unusual times because my son, I’ll call him Peter, was participating in a choral program at a church in the city.

I write this to explain why in the world I would be in Washington not only on a Friday night and a Saturday afternoon, but of all weekends, on the weekend when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are having their annual meetings. Two out of every three years they hold their joint meetings in the capital of the Free World, the third year somewhere else. They like holding their meetings in the capital of the Free World because they are very much interested in the capital of the Free World.

Finance ministers, government economic development experts, and related hangers on from all over the globe gather to talk about poverty and economic hardship in the poor countries and how the rich countries have an obligation to channel more money in the direction of the poor countries. They have been doing this for something over 65 years. And yet, with a few exceptions, the poor countries seem to remain poor, the most notable growth being in the number of poor countries.

Early in my career in Washington, back in the early 1980s, these meetings used to be a lot of fun. The world’s largest commercial banks would hold lavish parties. In those days the big banks, encouraged by the IMF, the World Bank, and their own governments, were big into lending money to the poor countries, billions and billions of dollars. That money was supposed to fuel economic growth by funding big projects that politicians could take credit for and where they could have their pictures taken at elaborate ribbon cutting ceremonies. The projects were started, some of them built, but very little economic development resulted. The poor nations were not very good at paying back the loans. In the mid-1980s it almost destroyed the banks. Since then, they have gotten out of that business. They stopped holding the parties, too.

Walking through Washington last night and this afternoon I could see nevertheless that lavish parties were still going on. I am not sure who was hosting them. I think that at least some were sponsored by non-profit groups. But they were still lavish. It was very difficult getting past the fanciest hotels and restaurants and some of the popular museums. Stretch limos were packed in as the financial leaders of these poor countries were climbing out and milling around, dressed in tuxedos, evening dresses, and pricey jewelry, to hear speeches from well-paid development experts, delivering their latest reports on the tough financial times and their clever theories about the obligations of rich nations like the United States to send more money to the poor nations.

This afternoon we walked by Lafayette Square, within earshot of a group of protesters in front of the White House. Somebody was bellowing through a bullhorn. I could not quite make out what he was chanting. I think it had something to do with the World Bank and IMF not giving poor nations enough money. As I say, I could not quite make it out. My son said it sounded all the world like,

No more pencils,
No more books,
No more teachers’
Dirty looks.

(First published September 24, 2011)

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