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Let them eat honey-roasted peanuts.

by Michael Irwin and members of the World Bank

On March 30, 1990, citing a bloated, overpaid bureaucracy, poor management, and pervasive arrogance, Michael Irwin resigned from his position as director of the World Bank's Health Services Department. A month before, Irwin had written the following letter to the bank's staff magazine. The memos written in response, excerpted here, give a small sampling of his reasons for quitting: Letters section, The Bank's World, February 1990: To the editor:

In February and March, I will be flying to four countries in East Africa. Although entitled to first class, I will travel in business class (and in economy when business is unavailable on some short flights in Africa). This will save about $1,900 on this trip, which will be used to send one of our nurses to the annual American Occupational Health Conference in Houston, Texas, in April.

Are there any important advantages in flying first class? I believe there are none. One can get enough to eat and drink (remember that two alcoholic drinks on a plane have the same effect as three on the ground!) in the business section of the plane. Some will claim they can sleep more easily on long flights when in first. However, to lessen the symptoms of jet lag, it is best to only take catnaps on long flights, as one should frequently drink nonalcoholic fluids to combat the excessive dryness inside the plane and also should walk occasionally around the cabin to lessen body fatigue and stimulate the circulation.

Consider how much money could be saved and used in more productive ways if most of us gave up first-class travel.

Michael Irwin, M.D., HSD Date: February 9, 1990 To: Bilsel Alisbah [vice-president for personnel

and administration, Irwin's boss] From: Gottfried Ablasser, EM4AG [agricultural

adviser in the World Bank's regional office

for Europe, the Middle East, and North

Africa] Subject: First-Class Air Travel

.. It is appalling that the director of the Bank's Health Services argues publicly for financial savings over staff members' health. He hasn't even made the trip to Africa referred to in his letter yet, and he is already boasting about his (imaginary) money-saving discovery! Mr. Irwin must either be terribly ill-informed or frighteningly insensitive to staff members' concerns.

My family and I will not feel safe again until Mr. Irwin has been replaced by someone who really cares. 1, and I am sure many of my colleagues, will be watching what steps you and the Staff Association are going to take towards this end. Date: February 9, 1990 To: Dr. Michael Irwin, PERHS From: Grant Sinclair, AS1PH [adviser in the Population

and Human Resources Division of the

Bank's Regional Office for Asia] Subject: Your letter in The Bank's World 1) From the perspective of a frequent traveler in Operations, your choice of subject material for a letter to The Bank's World was indeed an unfortunate one, and I can only wonder as to your reasons for choosing this particular forum to use your position to make the chilling statement that you did against first class travel. I would also wonder where are the benefits to staff health from your spending a considerable sum of money on a four-country trip to East Africa (even in business class). Could I suggest that this money might be much better spent on, for example, monitoring noise and air quality in Bank buildings during the reconstruction process and on seeking ways to reduce the stress factors inherent in our work here, instead of potentially adding greatly to them. 2) Your assertion that travel money could be more productively used completely overlooks the reality of the budget process in this institution.... Our financial controllers would simply accept a one-time reduction in the cost of doing business, then go about the wholly arbitrary process of keeping the lid on expenditures, but from a lower level. What would you then have achieved? Probably nothing but a lot of dissatisfaction among the productive staff of this institution and, I might predict, some time later a modest increase in the numbers of post-mission, travel-induced strokes among our more elderly frequent travelers, which, of course, would help to justify the continued existence of a World Bank Health Office that is of dubious value to many of us in the first place. Date: February 9, 1990 To: Michael Irwin From: Robert Calderisi, EAASV [principal adviser

to Mr. Alisbah] Subject: First Class Travel

. .In case you haven't heard yet, your letter to the editor in this week's The Bank's World is causing a large stir among operational staff. The apparent gratuitousness of the advice and the implied criticism of anyone who continues to fly first class are apparently at the heart of the trouble.

I have been a skeptic myself on the issue in the past ... but the matter is an extremely sensitive one still, partly because for operational staff it is the most tangible expression (and some would say the "final test") of the institution's esteem and consideration....

Add to this the recurrent budget battles in the Board and the difficulty which the President has had in preserving first-class travel for staff, and the brew becomes all the more heady. Your letter will be seen as a gift to the "bean counters" in the Bank and the US/UK "budget bashers" on the Board, despite the good advice you also provided on how to reduce the effects of jet-lag-which I enjoyed.

You couldn't have known this background, but you can expect to hear from the Staff Association or irate readers. While in Nairobi, you might want to draft a suitably witty retraction for a future issue. Shall I try to draft a limerick for you?

Bon voyage ! February 16, 1990 Mr. Alisbah,

I don't know what your personal view on [our] travel policy is, but it seems quite inappropriate for a senior manager to publish his personal views in a letter to the editor. Particularly since he runs the department on which we have relied for part of our argumentation.


[Ernest Stem, Senior Vice

President, Finance] Excerpt from the minutes of the Executive Board's Committee on Cost Effectiveness and Budget Practice, January 1988, that were enclosed with the above note: Discussion of Bank's Travel Policy-Operational and Health Considerations.

.. The staff stated that one of the best ways to ease the stress of travel was to travel by the means which provided travelers with the most restful and the least stressful accommodations possible. The Medical Department staff said that first-class offered more space per passenger, larger and more comfortable seats, greater peace and quiet, and better toilet facilities.... Personal

March 21, 1990 Dear Mr. Stem,

. .Please forgive me for being so frank, but I would like to make the following comments:

.. Regarding the "minute" you sent to Mr. Alisbah, I certainly do not feel at all committed to some of the rather silly remarks which were made to justify first-class travel to the Board committee in 1988.

. . Personally, I believe first class air travel, instead of "business class" travel, should be discouraged for medical reasons . . . and for nonmedical reasons (e.g., creating an inappropriate image to others; a waste of money). In other "UN family" organizations, except for the IMF, only the most senior officials now usually travel in first class-why should the Bank be so very different?

Yours sincerely,

Michael Irwin Date: February 16, 1990 To: Michael Irwin, PERHS From: Paul M. Cadario, AS3CO [chairman, Staff

Association Working Group on Travel and

Services] Subject: Staff Association reply to your letter to The

Bank's World.

... I understand that your views about the desirability of flying in business class are your own, and do not reflect the opinions of others in the Personnel and Administration Complex. It is all the more unfortunate that your letter has created, once again, widespread anxiety among traveling Bank staff about possible changes in the Bank's travel policy. This policy has served the institution well for many years....

For over a decade there have been various challenges to the Bank's travel policy. These have come from management, from a narrow group on the Board, from the authors of the Reorganization, and from the Bank's budget authorities. For over a decade, every report prepared in response has demonstrated that the current policy suits the Bank's operational requirements well....

Moreover, there is increasing medical evidence about the health hazards of air travel (aside from over-indulgence in first class, which you are wise to remind us of) and how the seating space in the forward cabin reduces these dangers somewhat. . . . These misunderstandings are particularly unfortunate and damaging to morale in the reorganized Bank, now that an increasing number of technical department staff are traveling more than 150 days per year....

It is regrettable that the tightness of HSD's training budget forced you to travel below the class that has been shown to be most effective for the Bank's requirements. Perhaps when you return from your trip to East Africa, you will understand better why those of us who travel often do not share your views. Date: March 13, 1990 To: Mr. Paul M. Cadario From: Michael Irwin, M.D. Subject: First Class Travel

... I am pleased to tell you that I had a pleasant trip-except for one "leg." When I was in Lusaka, the local office arranged for me to fly direct to Dares-Salaam and, by mistake, gave me a first class ticket. On this Air Tanzania flight, I quickly discovered that five of the eight occupants of the 12 seats in first class were all smokers. After half an hour of this exposure, I moved back to the designated areas for nonsmokers in the economy section of the plane-there being no "business class"-where I enjoyed the rest of my flight.

In your memorandum you mentioned that "an increasing number of technical department staff are travelling more than 150 days per year." From information I received earlier this year, it seems to me that only 18 staff travelled more than 150 days during calendar year 1989, and this is a reduction on the previous year. Maybe my information is wrong-if so, I would be pleased to be corrected... From World Bank Group Staff Association Newsletter, February 28, 1990: TRAVEL POLICY-The Staff Association has noted the concern voiced by staff regarding Dr. Irwin's statements in The Bank's World on First Class travel. We have confirmed that this is Dr. Irwin's personal view and does not reflect a change in Bank policy on this issue. Letters section, The Bank's World, March 1990: To the editor:

The merits of the World Bank operational travel policy have been extensively debated and found valid. Staff with control of their travel budgets, from stack managers to the president, have independently made the judgment that, for various reasons, first-class travel is generally desirable for their missions. If a major objective of this organization is to save money, two possibilities are not to travel at all or to close some departments-options Dr. Irwin may want to consider in the case of HSD.

Malcolm Bale, LAI To the editor:

I was extremely pleased to read Dr. Irwin's letter. I agree with Dr. Irwin that lots of money could be saved and used in more productive ways if we gave up first-class travel. However, we shouldn't stop at that.

Take elevators for example. Think of how much money the Bank could save by stopping the elevators altogether. This would also respond to Dr. Irwin's concern with staff health; it would have salutary effects as we would all be energetically using the stairs. But this is not all. Take the offices. Do we really need such large offices? I'm sure that most of us could fit in offices half their current size, if not less. But this is just the beginning. Think of our salaries. I am sure we could reduce them by 10 percent at least without any effect on our living standards. Also, think of the Bank furniture, such as expensive chairs (what's wrong with stools?), the unnecessary carpets, windows, etc.

In two or three years, of course, this place will be full of people who have no sense of what feeling well means and no expertise in ensuring their own well-being. How such people could be productive and contribute to improve the well-being of others is hard to imagine. Never mind. They would come cheap and virtuous. Once virtuous, why bother being rational or productive?

Roberto Zagha, ASICO Date: March 15, 1990 To: Mr. Roberto Zagha, ASICO From: Michael Irwin, M.D. PERHS Subject: Your letter in the March issue of The Bank's


... I am a great believer in using stairs as opposed to elevators, especially if one is moving downwards....

Regarding the size of the individual offices, I believe that some in the Bank's buildings may be unusually large. The present one I occupy is at least one-third larger than the one I had in New York when I was the Medical Director at the United Nations....

Regarding salaries, you may be interested in knowing that, generally, salaries of Bank staff are about 20 percent higher than those of our UN colleagues in New York and, of course, one should add that New York is generally a more expensive area than Washington.

In spite of these handicaps, which my former UN, UNICEF, and UNDP colleagues faced, I do not think that their performances are any different from those I see among my present colleagues in the Bank. Date: March 14, 1990 To: Michael Irwin From: Thierry Sagnier, EXTMC [editor of The

Bank's World] Subject: Your memo to Paul Cadario

.. I have been associated with The Bank's World since its creation in 1981 and do not recall ever running a story prompting so many angry responses. My in-box, All-in-1, and doorway were armed with missives and staff denouncing me for having run the letter. The issue is obviously a highly sensitive one, with staff concerned that management will take away what they deem is not so much a luxury as a necessity. Even though the opinion you stated was your own and not management's, I fear we ruffled the feathers of many at all levels. I'm therefore somewhat reluctant to pursue the issue.

I would, however, be very interested in getting an article from you on how to avoid jet lag. Would this be possible?

March 30, 1990

An open Letter to the

President of the World Bank Dear Mr. Conable,

... The present administrative budget, for the fiscal year 1989-90, of $900 million (for a staff of about 7,000) could rise to $1 billion in the next fiscal year... In the coming year, as forecast in a January document to the President's Council, "substantial increases are likely to arise out of changes in personnel benefits policies." . . . Also, there is expected to be "a salary budget increment of 6 percent ... compared to a general U.S. inflation rate projected at about 4.5 percent." All these new financial advantages to staff will occur even when the same paper refers to the fact that, in some areas of development, the "Bank Group response tends to be constrained less by inadequate numbers of staff than by difficulties in coordination with the Bank Group and by the training, orientation, and attitudes of Bank staff." . . .

Some of the Bank's projects are successful, some may help a little, some are failures, and some are actually harmful. The same can be said of the Bank's staff and its internal practices. With the organization being overconcerned with its prestige, and the staff being preoccupied with their salaries, benefits, and "grade creep," is it possible that today the Bank has forgotten why it exists? ... Is it not very hypocritical to prescribe financial discipline and savings for so many developing countries without being more restrictive within one's own organization? ... Yours sincerely,

Michael Irwin Postscript: The Economist reports that "in March, the World Bank reached an agreement with British Airways that provides Bank staff with a 'free upgrade to Concorde for first-class travel to/from Washington, subject to availability within 96 hours of departure.'"
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Title Annotation:World Bank's mismanagement
Author:Irwin, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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