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Wednesday, March 16

Courtiers and Indentured Servitude

Dear Pundita, May I ask why you omitted the Second Rule of Foreign Policy from the list of essays on development? The list you put up on your home page? You brought out very important points in the essay. I think it should be included in the list. Also, I suggest you talk a little about the realities for the expats who work at the World Bank. That would help people understand why there's so much waste and inefficiency connected with Bank projects and why the Bank resists an external audit.
[Signed] Kumar in Bethesda

Dear Kumar:

We didn't put that essay on the sidebar because we forgot to do it. Thank you for the reminder; Pundita has corrected the oversight. Yes it might be a help, if Americans outside the international organization 'community' based in Washington, DC learn what happens to non-American Bank employees if they get fired. I forget how many days or hours they have to leave the USA, but they don't have much time to take their children out of school, collect all their belongings, and return to their own country.

If that brings forth, "Aw too bad" from American readers--well, how would you like to live with the thought that if you get fired from your job in the USA that means having to put your child in school in some place such Pakistan? And not in an 'enclave' school reserved for American children of diplomats and other Americans working there.

I'm not trying to elicit your sympathy but to convey why "Don't rock the boat" is the operating philosophy for World Bank employees. Most of the employees are not American and many are from LDCs--less developed countries, or what used to be called the Third World. If they screw up in their work or get on the wrong side of a Bank higher-up, it's back to wherever they came from. That place is usually a far cry from the safety and freedom that Americans enjoy.

The Bank looks after their employees well--great health benefits, and so on. But working for the Bank is a form of indentured servitude; it's a Golden Cage. And if you work at Bank headquarters in the USA, you're not free to tell the boss to go to hell then quit your job--not unless you want to lose everything you've built up in America.

This reality has created a culture inside the Bank that evokes to remarkable degree the courts of ancient imperial dynasties. This extends to the highly ritualized labyrinthian Bank language used in memorandums and reports. It's courtier language. The idea is to ensure that what you say is so hard to pin down that the ax can't find your head.

That culture doesn't make for reflexive responses to problems, which doesn't mean the Bank can't be reflexive. The World Bank has so much power, wealth and expertise that when the will is there, the Bank can move against a problem with awesome speed and efficiency. The hard part is getting the will to that point.

Very few people get fired from the Bank just because of the situation I outlined. But that means supporting a lot of bad job performance, a bloated workforce, and it means a work culture built on fear. If you justifiably fear speaking up at your job when you see things that are really wrong, what kind of organization can you expect to see evolve from a culture of fear?

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