By Donella Meadows
–January 16, 1992–
“In 1972 a group of people … had a vision of a multinational, multilingual bank with a philosophy that would accommodate all nationalities, all races, all creeds. A universal institution that … would link the industries of the North with the resources of the South, the mysticism of the East with the rationalism of the West, in a network of trade and transactions.”
By 1980 that visionary bank had $4 billion in assets and was one of the fastest-growing financial institutions in the world. Its mission statement, recited at all management meetings, listed four goals: “Submission to God, service to mankind, success, giving.”
The book value of this amazing bank reached $20 billion by July 1991, the month in which regulators in seven nations shut it down and indicted its managers for bilking a million depositors of at least $5 billion.
The bank was BCCI, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, chartered in Luxembourg, run by Pakistanis, owned primarily by the Sheik of Abu Dhabi. It had branches in 69 countries. It was the pride of the Third World. Said one of its staff, “Everyone worked 15, 18 hours a day, seven days a week. It was the greatest place to work because everybody felt like an owner, a family member.”
BCCI’s employees were not allowed to smoke, drink, or gamble. They were granted each year a bonus of 3 percent of their annual salary to be given to a charity of their choice. The bank itself gave away millions of dollars to development projects in the poorest parts of the world. BCCI’s founder and president, Agha Hassan Abedi, spoke of his organization in the most exalted terms: “It is my absolute conviction that within a decade BCC will be the highest profit-making bank. It will, God willing, be the best paying bank; it will also be the best bank. But it is my hope that every hope associated with BCC — hope of justice, hope of equality, hope of fellow feeling, hope of humility, hope of challenge, … would be realised also.”
The man who spoke that way was banker to Saddam Hussein, Ferdinand Marcos, Manuel Noriega, and the CIA. He and his managers are now accused of bribery, extortion, laundering drug money, financing terrorists, facilitating illegal arms sales, evading taxes, doctoring books, and providing special clients not only with large, unsecured loans but also with prostitutes of their choice.
Those in the know have long called BCCI the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals International.” It could as well be called the “Bank of Counterfeit and Cynical Inspiration.” BCCI’s managers will be prosecuted for fraudulent banking practices. There is no way to bring them to account for a greater offence — abusing the trust of people who yearn to serve noble purposes, debasing the language of morality, and fueling the skepticism of a society that believes increasingly that nowhere, not even where words and purposes are most noble, is there to be found any human good.
An enthusiastic BCCI consultant once wrote: “The absence of organization charts and titles reflects the bank’s emphasis on equality and its dedication to the process of interfusion. BCCI sees every member of the family … as a manager…. Each person is expected to influence and to be influenced by all others. The end result … is a joint personality. In a very real sense the joint personality runs the bank.”
A perfect structure for deniability, one can say now — and that consultant must be a sadly disillusioned person.
“Thank you,” wrote an employee in the Rome branch, “for giving me the chance to strengthen the belief that every human being, all over the world, has a precise purpose in life: to serve humanity with humility, to take away the boundaries of the individual ego and open himself to totality, … in the awareness that he is an instrument carrying out a divine plan.”
That employee’s job did not survive, and neither, one suspects, did his beautiful belief.
Agha Hassan Abedi, along with Rajneesh and Jimmy Bakker and many other pious hypocrites, has robbed people not only of their money but of their faith. He has made it easier for cynics to chortle and harder for anyone to use in public words like “morality,” “service to humanity,” “equality,” “humility.” Every counterfeit guru erodes something precious and perishable — the shared belief in and commitment to the development of a moral social order.
To have a belief and commitment to morality will not always lead to morality. There will always be corrupt hypocrites. But to abandon faith is to give full reign to corruption. It is critical to remember, those of us who are disheartened by the BCCI story, a simple truth that is well known to every banker. There would be no possibility of counterfeit, if somewhere there weren’t real gold.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992