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Leaders Fiddle as World Burns

The officials gathered at the IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington are drinking, dancing -- and, oh yeah, fighting poverty.

WASHINGTON -- Ecuador has made waves in emerging markets and set dangerous precedents with its default on half of its Brady payments, but that shouldn't stop the party.

The Ecuadorian ambassador to the

United Nations

is hosting a reception at his residence this evening, and it appears to be one of the more exclusive engagements of the

International Monetary Fund/World Bank Annual Meetings

. The few journalists milling about during the closed-door sessions are wondering how much of the $40 million-plus in interest not paid is going toward tonight's festivities. "Talk about fiddling while Rome is burning!" japed one Latin American journalist in passing.

Ecuador is not the only entity partying because it's 1999 -- the meetings are characterized by an atmosphere of denial despite lip service to

poverty reduction. Delegations and press corps move from catered seminar to luncheon to lavish receptions, all the while discussing debt-reduction needs and necessary financial reforms for developing countries.

The old-boy network is in full swing as the 15,000 or so attendees -- a sea of black and navy suits -- meet, drink and dance off beat between high-level closed-door meetings.

Setting Aside the Common Touch

Even World Bank President

James Wolfensohn

, the man who makes a point of engaging with the common folk in recipient countries, knows he is playing to the elite who can make their deals on the tennis courts and putting greens of the world.

"I have grown to love Alan, and he occasionally lets me win at golf," said a jovial Wolfensohn in his introduction to

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Federal Reserve


Alan Greenspan's


speech. That was Monday. By Tuesday morning, Wolfensohn's tone had reverted to more the serious topics of poverty reduction and cooperation.

"Per-capita incomes will stagnate or decline this year in all regions except East and South Asia. In the developing world, with the exception of China, there are 100 million more people living in poverty today than a decade ago," noted the president, who has just been approved for a second term. Looking around the


ballroom, it was hard to pick out the representatives from these poor nations -- it seems

Brooks Brothers

is accessible for even the most underappreciated public official.

To better combat poverty and create more effective development recommendations, Wolfensohn and other multilateral lending organization leaders are calling for a new international development architecture. "Gone are the days when development can be done behind closed doors in Washington or Western capitals, or any capital, for that matter," Wolfensohn said.

This architecture is envisioned as a coalition between the U.N., government, multilaterals, the private sector and civil society. Such a coalition may be the only way to save the reputation of the IMF, which fell under a deluge of criticisms as a result of the Ecuadorian restructuring and the Russian money-laundering debacle.

Even IMF President Michel Camdessus told the Board of Governors Tuesday morning, "When essential programs had to be adopted for Thailand, for Indonesia, for Korea, for Brazil, for Russia, and for others, you were there; we were together. For this support, for this cooperation, for this unanimity, at the time of the most severe test in our history, may I simply say: thank you."

For his part, Wolfensohn knows, like his audience at these annual meetings, that to gain that needed cooperation, one must work a crowd, preferably in a congenial setting like a rented national gallery or landmark home or, like tonight, at the Ecuadorian ambassador's residence. But the question remains -- will deeply effective efforts at poverty reduction kill the party in Prague next year?