The Opulent Business of Poverty

Postcard From Washington, D.C.

When one enters the World Bank’s main building, the first thing that makes an impression is the size of the place. Covering an entire city block, the MC building is a veritable palace of glass and concrete in the heart of Washington, a few blocks from the White House. The main atrium, which spans all 13 flights of stairs, illuminates an open area of marble flooring the size of a football field that plays host to a veritable rainforest of flowering exotic plants and a waterfall as well as permanent sculptures and traveling art exhibits. In each of the four corners of the atrium are the towers, complete with their own sets of elevators waiting to whisk workers up and down. It’s hard to believe that this is just one in an armada of facilities the World Bank owns in Washington and around the globe.

When I took a job at the World Bank, I thought I was enduring some hardship for the benefit of the poor in some other country. I thought that while my friends were making $10,000+ for the summer at large private investment firms in Manhattan, I would be slaving away in hot and humid D.C. as a lowly clerk in a poorly-ventilated basement cubicle that I would share with ten other people, at least two of whom would be from a country that didn’t believe in deodorant.

But, as I entered the glass monolith at 1818 H Street NW on the first day of my job, I realized that “the Bank” was not going to be the spartan catharsis I had anticipated. This was something I should have realized when I was arbitrarily told a month before my job started that my salary was being boosted from $8 per hour to $11.15 per hour.

Arriving at work on my first day, I discovered that I had my own modern glass cubicle. I was told by an embarrassed receptionist that she was sorry they didn’t have enough offices this summer. When I responded that I never expected an office, she laughed.

Not that my cubicle was uncivilized. It contained a brand new Dell computer complete with flat screen monitor, optical mouse, and laser printer (I was to find that every computer has its own laser printer as well as a centralized color laser printer for the division). I sit in a well-padded chair in the middle of a complete wraparound desk with more office supplies than I know what to do with. And I am a clerk, the lowest possible position at the Bank.

But the Bank’s expensive taste extends to more than just the façade of the offices. Every minute detail is taken care of with expert attention. The bank has an employee credit union, its own subsidized cafeteria, a subsidized dry-cleaning and laundry service, and a cheap DVD rental station. The janitorial army keeps the place spotless, and even the office plants—the abundance of which resemble a veritable jungle—have a specialized staff designated for their care, including pruning, watering, fertilizing, and even curing ailments such as fungus or diseases.

The plants aren’t the only ones who are well-fed though. It regularly treats its employees to company dinners and catered picnics. The Bank has no qualms about taking us to the ritziest restaurants in Washington, including those that have streams of Bentleys lined up at the Valet (and I’ve been told by my boss that our group only uses 2/3 of its annual discretionary budget!). Compared with the unpaid political interns also residing in the dorms at George Washington University, I live like a king.

I guess I expected the bank to be spartan because it’s a public institution. Financed by member countries and also by internal sources of revenue, I thought an establishment like the Bank was obligated to give every available cent to starving AIDS orphans in Africa faced with hardships I could not even conceive. But, as I’ve realized in my few weeks on the job, the Bank must be a place of luxury and embody the antithesis of poverty.

Don’t misunderstand me—the employees of the Bank all knowingly make significantly less than their skills would garner in the private sector. But that sacrifice is supplanted with additional assets that lure these economists, lawyers, and administrators into the institution. In thanks for the living the life of the starving intellectual after they leave work, the employees of the bank are surrounded by opulence and given many perks, including a more relaxed schedule than banking usually requires.

Now… to get back to writing this rejection letter for a grant Ethiopia applied for.

Joshua P. Rogers ’07, an economics concentrator in Lowell House, is a news editor of The Harvard Crimson. He is already saddened by the prospect of returning to Harvard food and the truly spartan Crimson newsroom.