"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Surviving the World Bank

I had Brenda Beckworth eating out of my hand.  Brenda worked in the HR Department of the World Bank and besieged me daily with requests for completed W-1090s, pay grade adjustment forms, vehicle tax release vouchers, and revised travel allowances.  I hated coming into the office and seeing the piles of new interoffice memos, all initialed BB, and all containing more instruments of torment and torture.  I had joined the Bank after years as a consultant because I wanted a rich, high-powered environment – i.e. smart people; an institution of international renown – i.e. a place people listened to rather than put up with; and a multi-cultured organization with attractive and alluring members. 

The Bank only partly met my expectations.  It was definitely a high-powered organization, but because of its sharply pyramidal structure – very few positions at the top and a pack of hungry dogs salivating and barking at the bottom – most of the effort of Bank staff was spent securing position, funds, and influence.  It was listened to – loans were only given if the borrowing country agreed to ‘conditionalities’, terms which imposed rigorous compliance to repayment and both financial and technical performance – but not heard.  Countries knew that soft loans never really had to be repaid, so they went about their usual business of siphoning off resources, diddling in project management, and ultimately failing.  Finally, it was most definitely a multi-cultured organization, but all this meant was that Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, and Filipinos fought each other for influence and primacy. 

As far as ‘attractive’ and ‘allure’, I was smitten with Josephine Levy, a 6’2” Jamaican with sense of humor that would buckle my knees, and a devouring sexual appetite.  I was later also smitten with Amanda Worthington, who, in the rear view mirror of time was a tiny New Zealander with a bird-like walk but who had a voice like an angel.  The first time I heard her sing, I looked around to see where the aria was coming from; but it was Amanda whose pure, crystalline, soaring soprano filled the Third Methodist Church with celestial, uplifting music.  I could not resist that voice; and who was the woman behind it?

All in all, however, the Bank was an unmitigated grind.  Managing projects was purgatory, and Brenda Beckworth fed the flames with her daily correspondance.

I decided to be especially nice to Brenda in the hopes that perhaps we might find another way around the administrative hurdles.  We had drinks, lunches, late morning coffees outside the office, and frequent chats in the kitchenette on the 4th floor.  I had absolutely no interest in her whatsoever.  She was so fat that her Caucasian face looked like a Filipino’s, for when she smiled her eyes disappeared into Asian-looking, angled folds.  She waddled, and her arms banged against her stomach rolls when she walked.  She had a squeaky voice and very hairy legs.

As time went on, I saw that my solicitousness was working.  It wasn’t that the flow of BB-initialed administrative abuse ceased; all she did was to apologize for giving me so much work.  This was obviously not enough.  I began to ask her about her life, taking an interest in the career trajectory that would have led to such a boring, dead-end, infinitely repetitive and irremediably unfulfilling job.  She told me that she had been born and raised in rural Iowa, and after Community College got a job with an Agricultural Insurance Company in Nebraska.  “They insured corn, soy, and wheat crops”, she told me.  This seemed an incredible deal.  Farmers who already got a guaranteed price for their products by the government also were covered by state-secured crop insurance. 

“It wasn’t much of a job”, she went on.  “I was just the Assistant Secretary to the Personnel Director”; but it gave her the independence from her family that she had long sought, and Omaha was the bright lights compared to tiny Bedford.  “I was lonely in Iowa", she said, “but I was even more lonely in Omaha”.  At home she at least had her family; but in Omaha she shared a cheap third-floor apartment over a tattoo parlor and never met anyone.  “Washington is different”, she said. “I’m not lonely here”.

Brenda wasn’t a mean person – the kind you often find in bureaucratic cubbyholes doing no-exit shit jobs in a department of eraser-heads who held a perverse power over you.  Without the proper paperwork you were fucked.  Brenda was just stupid, and adopted this overly regimented, by-the-book approach to HR administration because she couldn’t think on her feet.

She was now, after two months of friendship, was sending me fewer administrative requests.  She took care of them herself – exactly what I had hoped.  I could now shift down a gear or two, lighten up on the social time, and enjoy the rewards of my solicitousness.

It turned out that although she knew that I was married, she still thought she could bore through the marital wall.  She had the kind of determination which assured that, along with her size, she would never find a compatible mate.  “When do you think we can take this to another level?”, she asked one day at Flaherty’s Bar.  I should have known that this day would come. Everyone has the right to love, I had always assumed; but I was still taken by surprise.  I demurred, said that we should talk this over at another time, and stopped chatting by her cube.  

“Hell hath no greater fury than a woman scorned”, said my mother, always fond of old saws, reminded me – a reference more to some steamy and unspoken love in her own life than to mine; and when Brenda realized that I was not going to pursue her, she upped the ante. Not only did she stop helping me, but she got more niggling, nitpicking, and irritably impatient. She had me, and unless I moved departments and transferred to something which required little or no authorizations from HR, I was to be her pin-stuck voodoo doll for some time to come. .

As luck would have it, the Bank reorganized about a year after I joined.  The Bank, I was told, always reorganizes, usually about every seven years.  Nothing ever changes, however, no matter how structural the upheaval might be.  It was just shifting and replacing, like kindergarten chairs moved for storytelling then back again for coloring.    After every reorganization, the Annual Development Reports still offered gloomy news – bad loans were non-performing; health status was deteriorating, not improving; money was disappearing – but offered hope: “Now that we know what the problems are, the future will be different, for we will solve them”, wrote the Bank President; and so the Bank swapped Technical Departments for Regional Departments and back again; put the support divisions together in one department, then farmed them out to individual regional or technical departments.  ‘There is no change but change’ goes the Buddhist adage and it was never more true than at the World Bank.

The only benefit of my reorganization was that I was out of the clutches of Brenda Beckworth.  I was able to land a technical job – Nutrition Advisor to the India Division of the Asia Department; and my principal responsibilities were to mine the current research on pellagra, rickets, goiter, anemia – not to manage anyone or anything.  This by no means freed me from the bureaucracy.  The Bank has always been known for its thoroughness, and every research or policy paper and every formal project agreement had to go through ‘the colors’ – draft reports with blue covers, red covers, pink covers, green covers, and a final, finished grey cover – before they were completed.  This meant endless revisions, consultations, advisory committees, technical reviews, and finicky editing.  The end result was usually worth reading, but the process of getting there was almost as bad as negotiating Brenda Beckworth’s administrative mine fields and snake pits.

Reorganizations were not to be missed, however, because if you paid attention, you could learn a lot.  I realized that the bureaucracy at the Bank was an organic whole – a kind of ectoplasm, an amoeba-like blob that when pricked in one area, blobbed over and changed shape, but kept its mass.  It moved at its own volition and responded to outside stimulus by shifting, changing, and reconfiguring.  It was the same gooey, bureaucratic blob, just a little fatter over here and less globular over there.  It had its own inertia; its own momentum. 

The other thing I learned were survival skills.  The Bank was organized by national cabals – protective, informal societies of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis which helped their members.  In reorganizations, they acted like labor unions, advocating for promotions, salaries, and positions.  They were very successful.  The only group that always lost out were we Americans.  Because of our exaggerated belief in democratic ideals, hard work, and independence, we never bothered to organize – our merits would be enough – and we were outmaneuvered and outflanked every time.

We were also bigmouthed blatherers.  We simply couldn’t keep our big traps shut, despite the fact that in the hi-test environment of the Bank – where octane was added during reorganizations – information was power or poison.  I was as rumor-conscious as the rest of my American colleagues, and was always ready to try them out on others.  “Where do you think Hendricks will go?”, I asked Beyene, my Ethiopian colleague.  He answered vaguely, then turned the conversation to static heads, convection currents, and brick latticework, the stock in trade of low-cost sanitation.  I saw, after repeated inquiries, that he was getting impatient.  One day, over lunch, he told me his background.  He had been a civil engineer in Ethiopia in the worst days of the Haile Mengistu.  Life under the dictator was as bad as that of Honecker and the Stasi if not worse.  One slip of the tongue, and you spent years in prison. 

So when the dust had settled after the reorganization, and the bodies of Americans, goodwill Canadians, Aussies, and a few Europeans who had not read history were strewn on the battlefield, heads began to pop up – an Ethiopian here, a Nigerian there, a Congolese there – popping up and surveying the desolated landscape like Meer Kats.  Keep your head down and your powder dry roared the African lieutenant across the plain, and after the battle, the Africans emerged to take the plum positions in the Bank.

I stayed four years at the Bank, one good and three bad, two of those intolerable, but I was swayed by the legions of wannabees who said, “Nobody leaves the Bank”.  Leaving the World Bank would be like renouncing the Vatican, tossing your crimson cardinal’s robes in the Tiber and returning to the priesthood in Iowa, losing your salary, perks and privileges.  It simply wasn’t done.

I was much happier after I left the Bank.  I re-launched my independent consulting career, and once again went ricocheting around the Third World, having fun, eating well, enjoying adventures, narrow escapes, and well-watered times on palmy beaches.  I liked the Lone Ranger aspect of independent consulting.  You went, you worked, you solved, you left, and you never returned.  No slug’s slime as a telltale trail.  Accountable only to yourself and the client who usually was very happy with very little.  Never again, I often said to myself, will I ever return to the World Bank; and I never did.

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