Every day all over the third world, the same scene is played out time and time again. Some poor embattled finance minister puts his card in the World Bank cash dispenser and the machine beeps and whirrs menacingly before telling him that it's retaining his card. "Sorry, you have exceeded your withdrawal limit. You are currently $89 trillion overdrawn. Please refer to branch." And he turns to the beggar sitting besides the cashpoint and says: "Spare any change please?"
It's been a miserable few days for James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank. As if it's not enough to be reviled by all the world's anti-capitalists gathered at Davos, a leaked memo this week also revealed that he is feared and despised by his own staff as well. That move into telephone banking was a big mistake.
"Good morning Sudan, thank you for calling the World Bank, my name is James; from your password today may I take letter number four please?"
"Er, well we don't use the Roman alphabet. We are an Arabic nation."
"Okay, squiggly bit number four then, please?"
"Is that going from left or right?"
Wolfensohn's job is much like being the manager of any other bank, really. You lend money to people who have much less than you do and then tell them they shouldn't be so extravagant. You write to third world leaders reminding them that they're massively overdrawn and then charge them £15 for the letter. Except that the World Bank was conceived as an organisation to assist third world development. Perhaps this is why the leaked memo revealed such disenchantment within the organisation. Staff know that the projects funded by their bank are causing massive ecological damage, the displacement of indigenous populations and increased poverty for millions. What with that and the bank having to be open on Saturday, it's no wonder they're fed up.
It has to be said that if you are hoping to avoid the wrath of campaigners against global capitalism you might come up with a slightly less provocative name than World Bank. It doesn't put you in mind of a council funded drop-in centre with creche facilities and a kettle. What about something like the Community Development Resource Project Co-operative? Their inescapable problem is that applying the ethos of international banking to third world development is as likely to work as your local Oxfam shop attempting a hostile takeover of the HSBC. You don't get the Red Cross handing out medical supplies on condition that the local regime builds an enormous dam which will displace thousands of people.
Christian Aid doesn't hold back emergency relief until it is sure that a toxic power plant is going to be built with the money. Much of the criticism that has been laid at the door of the World Bank has been prompted by its insistence on what are called Structural Adjustment Policies (ie economic policies that countries are forced to adopt in order to qualify for a World Bank loan). And I thought it was bad enough having to wear a tie when I went in about a mortgage.
Yet for an impoverished regime, the glossy brochure from Washington must have looked so appealing when it came through the post. "Problems with famine? Planning a small war? Whatever your financial needs, you'll find a flexible loan from the World Bank will help you and your subjects relax and enjoy the good things in life like sun, fresh air and er ... well that's all you'll have left. Call Free-phone 'Shark' and speak to one of our financial advisers.*
Third world governments are expected to devalue their currency against the dollar, lift import and export restrictions, bring in privatisation and slash government spending, which inevitably results in deep cuts in areas such as education, health and social care, prompting political unrest, rioting and repressive action on behalf of the state. Still, on the plus side, the Junior Savers Plus account does come with a smart leatherette folder and a plastic piggy bank.
It seems completely bizarre that anyone could imagine that western style capitalism could ever be the solution to third world poverty. It would be like the World Health Organisation saying: "Your country has a malaria epidemic. What you need is more mosquitoes." Perhaps James Wolfensohn should abandon any pretence of greater ideals and ballot the bank's shareholders with the promise of a windfall cheque if they vote for conversion into a normal high street bank. Then he could sack all his staff and sell off the bank's premises for conversion into a trendy restaurant. That seems to be the way everything else is going - why should we expect third world aid to be any different? That's the trouble with global capitalism these days. It's just got so commercial.
* Loans subject to status. Your right to decide economic policy may have to be surrendered to secure loan.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001