Leading Article: Reconstruction begins at home

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The Independent Online
DURING the Eighties F Ross Johnson, the charismatic boss of the American food and tobacco conglomerate R J R Nabisco, used to keep more aircraft for the use of the firm's executives than the entire fleet of Virgin Atlantic. But recession has taken its toll: the R J R Air Force, as it was called, is today sadly depleted. It is to London, rather than the US, that one now must look to see money being spent with style; and not to a captain of industry, but to an international civil servant. Step forward Jacques Attali, head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Mr Attali's bank owns no jets of its own - yet. But last year, according to yesterday's Financial Times, the bank spent pounds 600,000 chartering other people's planes to fly him all over Europe in pursuit of his laudable campaign to keep the European Community's market open to exports from formerly Communist but now capitalist countries. The bank also laid out pounds 750,000 to replace the marble in its head office with a more expensive variety; pounds 250,000 on works of art reflecting the patchwork of European cultures; and pounds 52,000 on a dinner party for its 600-odd employees at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.

Mr Attali may perhaps have picked up his flying habits from his brother, Bernard, who runs Air France. Yesterday Jacques was abroad, 'either on holiday or on his way to Tokyo', and his staff were unable to say whether he was flying on a scheduled or chartered aircraft. But they were evidently briefed with good answers to other questions. The old marble, mere travertine, 'didn't give us the right feeling', unlike the Carrara stuff that replaced it. The bank's grand dining-room was installed to compensate its employees for their miserably low salaries. Without the chartered jets, plenty of places in Eastern Europe would be hard to reach. And the party? It was 'not incredibly lavish', and the bank did its bit for Eastern Europe by serving Bulgarian wine. No wonder the bank has spent double on its own administration what it has lent to Eastern Europe.

Some critics doubt the bank's entire raison d'etre: countries where reform is working, such as Hungary and Poland, are attracting from the private sector 10 times what the bank could offer them; countries where it is not tend to waste any money they get. The critics also complain that it is bad enough for corporate chairman to waste shareholders' money, but worse still for civil servants to waste that of taxpayers.

Come, come. The bank's expenses are, after all, overseen by 56 national finance ministers, headed by that paragon of Teutonic rectitude, Theo Waigel. And who are we to quibble? With a lure of a mere pounds 40m, Britain attracted the bank to London - thus securing an injection into the local economy of five times that sum. That is a deal that any capitalist, East or West, would be proud of.