What Do the 2,400 People Who Work for the IMF Actually Do?

Let’s face it. This is a question that most people have never asked, but sometimes the best reads are answers to questions you never thought to ask. Liaquat Ahamed, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning  Lords of Finance, answers this question with style and insight in a On Tour with the IMF.

Mr. Ahamed essentially embedded with the IMF staff  and offers a snapshot — not a reporter’s tick-tock nor an economist’s critique of IMF missteps but more of an anthropological account – of what he saw on stage and off  at the International  Monetary Fund’s Washington headquarters (“a large glass atrium, reminiscent of a 1970s Hyatt), at the 2012 annual meeting in Tokyo (85 U.S. delegates, 73 from Brazil, 70 from Nigeria but only 13 from India plus 1,500 or so journalists) and on IMF missions (a lovely word that conveys the fund’s occasional evangelical streak) to Dublin and Maputo.

There’s no great drama in this book, nor any eyebrow-raising revelation. But, with just enough economic and historical context , Mr. Ahamed gives the lay reader a very good feel for what the IMF does – the economics, diplomacy and politics of assembling a loan package for Ireland during the euro crisis or the delicacy of serving as a broker between the government of Mozambique and donors who provide 30% of the government’s budget.

The best parts are Mr. Ahamed’s keen eye for detail. He finds the IMF offices in Maputo, not in a skyscraper but in a modest three-bedroom house and says it is “like finding your Wall Street banker uncle living in a bohemian shack on Key West.”  And he offers glimpses of the IMF infantry at work, particularly its 1,200 or so economists. The mission chief in Dublin, for instance, is an Indian with a U.S. Ph.D.  who bonded with the then-Irish finance minister when they both struggled with serious health problems in 2009.  (I would have gladly read even more about the IMF staffers whom Ahamed follows and what motivates them.)

At the very end of the book,  Mr. Ahamed recalls a speech delivered 70 years ago at the founding of the IMF in which John Maynard Keynes spoke hopefully that the fund and its sibling, the World Bank, would embody “the brotherhood of man.”   Mr. Ahamed says he was struck by the fact that the IMF rescue mission to Thailand was led by an Indian, that to Indonesia by an Iranian, to Korea by an Australian, to Brazil and Argentina by an Italian, to Greece by a Dane, Portugal by an Ethiopian, and Ireland by two more Indians.

There is, Mr. Ahamed says, “no better symbol of Keynes’ rather sentimental vision of the brotherhood of man than these diverse and improbable partnerships between the economic physicians in charge of the Fund and its patients.”

This is not a book for Kindle or iPad. In fact, there isn’t an e-book version, just a handsome paperback.  The publisher, Visual Editions describes this as “a new non-fiction format that collapses the boundary between a book and a magazine.”  Mr. Ahamed’s elegant prose is married to photographer Eli Reed’s evocative color photos of the IMF in…um, well… in action. The hybrid is priced more like book than magazine, though. It lists for $40 but was selling today on for $28.52.