Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Banking on illusion: Economist pens exposé

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Peter Koenig remembers having an ‘‘inclination toward defending the underdog” during his student days. That sensibility persisted at the start of his career: He was ‘‘a young idealist, wanting to do good” at the World Bank, the international financial organization with a United Nations mandate to work on reducing poverty.

The 65-year-old retired economist and water resource specialist now lives part-time in Bethesda as well as his native Switzerland and his wife’s native Peru. Recently, Koenig self-published a book; he defines its genre as ‘‘fiction based on facts, or faction.” The work reiterates his early proclivities within the framework of the very different reality revealed to him during his 30-plus year career.

‘‘Implosion,” he says, is about ‘‘a renegade World Banker, and a young Andean woman who leads a socio-environmental non-governmental organization in the Peruvian Amazon.” The pair ‘‘endure kidnappings, bombings and deadly chases in their fight against boundless capitalism, destructive economic policies and corporate greed that are wreaking worldwide social injustice and destroying the globe’s richest zones of biodiversity.”

Although a ‘‘tell all” is hardly what World Bank leaders would want or expect from a career employee, Koenig’s experiences gave him first-hand knowledge of the ‘‘flagrantly destructive financial policies” of which the public and even most of the staff of ‘‘the world’s foremost neoconservative financial institution” are unaware.

He felt compelled to share that information.

‘‘I wrote ‘Implosion’ to inform the public at large of what is really going on behind the walls of the illustrious 1818 H Street walls,” he explains. ‘‘You may call it a work of redemption. I call it a work of information.”

Koenig chose to write a novel because ‘‘the book market is flooded with non-fiction these days, most of them preaching to the choir. I wanted to reach a broader audience with a thriller that is both entertainment and informing.”

Art in economics

Koenig did not aspire to become an economist while growing up in a small town in rural Switzerland. Rather, he says, ‘‘I always liked painting and drawing. In fact, at 16, I wanted to enter an academy of arts to pursue a career in painting and graphic design.”

But his middle class parents – his father, a civil engineer, and mother, a homemaker – ‘‘strongly advised me otherwise,” arguing that unless he was very lucky, he would end up a starving artist. Forewarned, he ‘‘kept painting as a hobby,” studied economics at the University of Zurich and ‘‘never regretted” the decision.

Both his artistic and altruistic sensibilities responded to the opportunity he perceived.

‘‘I soon discovered that the social sciences, to which economics belongs, are imprecise sciences, open to a considerable degree of creativity and moldable according to one’s instincts and convictions,” Koenig recalls. ‘‘So, I saw a great potential in applying it to my goal of defending the underdog.”

‘‘I was convinced,” he adds, ‘‘that the solution [to poverty] had to do with applying economic formulas that were different from our traditional ones.”

Early on, Koenig worked for Geneva-based Union Carbide, which included three years in New York, his first stint in the U.S. Not long after, he returned to the U.S., having ‘‘finally landed a job with the World Bank.”

‘‘Being accepted by the World Bank — I mean on my own merits, without the recommendation of a ‘famous uncle,’ — was certainly a highlight [of my career],” Koenig says. ‘‘The tremendous and abject poverty I saw around the globe was my chief motivation to keep going, to perhaps being able to plant a seed of change, of improvement.”

Back then, he viewed the World Bank ‘‘with my blue-eyed youthful enthusiasm, as the greatest organization to fight poverty,” noting, ‘‘Little did I know at that time...”

For eight years, Koenig worked ‘‘almost exclusively for Africa.” He quickly ‘‘realized that Africa would be better off left alone, without so-called development aid from the West. I understood that we, the ‘developers,’ had no clue, or couldn’t care less, what makes Africa tick.”

As Koenig’s disillusionment grew, he came to understand ‘‘that the West would never let go of Africa. The Continent was enormously rich in natural resources ... which the Western industrial countries needed. And what better pretext to use than the guilt related to centuries of colonial oppression to now pump untold billions of dollars of so-called development investments ... into every country of nominally independent Africa, just to keep them dependent.”

Thus, Koenig opted to work in ‘‘grassroots areas, which, I thought, might at least have some impact on reducing local hardship, like rural water supply and sanitation.”

But that, too, proved an illusion.

‘‘I started realizing that these small ‘basic needs’ projects had no chance of flourishing,” he says, pointing out that these services ‘‘would be handed over to mostly foreign private sector corporations for profit.” Only ‘‘the foreign corporatocracy and the local elite” would reap benefits and the practices would serve to ‘‘indebt the countries for continuous dependence.”

All the ‘‘frustration and disappointment,” Koenig says, motivated him to write ‘‘Implosion,” and to ‘‘disseminate this information to as wide an audience as possible.”

Still, Koenig acknowledges that some of the World Bank’s ‘‘real socioeconomic development projects ... are helping the people to better living conditions,” although ‘‘such projects have become few and far between.”

His final assessment: ‘‘The basic needs projects remain merely a shiny veneer around a rotten pillar of devastating economic policies.”

‘‘If anything, the gap between poor and rich has grown wider.”

‘‘Implosion” is available in trade hardcover ($28.95) or paperback ($18.95) from major online booksellers as well as from its on demand publisher iUniverse, 1-800-288-4677, iUniverse.com.