Visitors to the presidential palace in Jakarta typically arrive by limousine, but not J. Andrew Spindler and John L. Douglas.
Their taxi driver afraid to get any closer, the two former bank regulators piled out into the muggy heat and walked to their meeting with Indonesian President B.J. Habibie.
Mr. Spindler and Mr. Douglas were there this spring to provide an opinion on a controversial piece of financial policy, and their recommendation was sure to upset powerful people in the government and business community. Colleagues had warned them: Deliver your opinion and get out of the country fast.
After a private chat with President Habibie and a walk back down the road, Mr. Spindler and Mr. Douglas headed to the airport in another taxi. Whenever the car stopped, people would shout at the foreigners and pound on the windows.
They eventually made it to their plane, which is why Mr. Spindler, relaxing in his Manhattan office recently, could laugh about the trip and sum it all up, with no apparent irony, as "a rich experience."
Mr. Spindler doesn't strike one as the sort of man to jet off to the world's hotspots on troubleshooting missions. Thin and bespectacled, Mr. Spindler has a resume that includes a Harvard MA, a Princeton PhD, and stints as a commercial banker, think tank scholar, and Federal Reserve bank economist.
The group he heads, the Financial Services Volunteer Corps, doesn't sound too flashy either. But the emergency trip to Jakarta is an example, albeit an extreme one, of the kind of work it does. In developing countries around the world, and in the shifting economic sands of the former Soviet Union, volunteers provide desperately needed expertise to governments trying to create modern financial systems.
They target what Mr. Spindler calls "bottleneck" problems - areas where financial systems that would otherwise be advancing have stalled because of a lack of knowledge or experience. The 187 projects the FSVC sponsored in 1998 included advising the Central Bank of Russia on setting regulatory reserve requirements, teaching bank regulators and law enforcement personnel in Bosnia-Herzegovina how to combat money laundering, and helping Hungarian central bankers manage their payments system.
New York attorney John L. Walker, president of the group's board, says, "FSVC is plugging into areas that are critical for the economy in these countries to get turned around."
Roughly 40% of the volunteers come from the New York metropolitan area, 20% from Washington, and the rest from across the country. They are drawn from banks, regulatory agencies, and law firms. Most get paid time off from employers who consider the experience professionally enriching as well as philanthropic.
The typical volunteer is a financial or legal professional at the peak of his or her career.
"We don't send academics - this is not an ivory tower operation. We send very practical people with great experience," Mr. Spindler says. "These aren't sexy problems; they're messy, dirty problems that need to be solved to create a strong banking system."
Creating strong banking systems in the countries of the former Soviet Union was the goal of the group when it was formed in 1990. President Bush tapped former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and former Deputy Secretary of State and Goldman Sachs co-chairman John C. Whitehead to develop a volunteer-based advisory service. The aim was to help former Soviet Bloc bankers who were struggling to shift from the Communist command economy to a free market.
It was and is "vital to U.S. interests that the countries of Eastern Europe that were part of the Soviet empire make a successful transition to democratic government and free-market economies," Mr. Whitehead says.
One of the organization's earliest recruits was former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker, who is now co-chairman with Mr. Whitehead. Mr. Volcker agrees that the FSVC's work is important well beyond the borders of the countries where it operates.
"If you believe that it is sensible to have a good relationship between the U.S. and these countries, giving them good advice and helping them straighten out their problems is certainly in the public interest," he says. "There aren't that many places they can go to get advice, and their resources are very limited."
Solving problems on a tight budget remains the group's primary mission. Its annual budget is just $4.5 million. This distinguishes the organization from financial services advisers looking to reap consulting fees - often in the form of U.S. foreign aid dollars - in the former Soviet Union.
"A lot of people are coming in who smell the money," says Andrei A. Kozlov, former first deputy chairman of the Russian Central Bank. "The advisers come in and say, 'We studied at Harvard, we know what you should have.' " They leave behind thick binders of recommendations that Mr. Kozlov says are not only unreadable but out of date within months.
"With the FSVC, things are different in two ways," he says. "First of all, they are very, very productive. They come in and ask, 'What do you need?' " Second, he says, is the continuity of contacts. Because volunteers work closely with individuals in client countries, they develop relationships with them that extend past the project's completion.
"The contacts remain," says Mr. Kozlov, president and CEO of Russian Standard Bank in Moscow. "If I need assistance or advice, I can reach them directly now."
Volunteers appear to welcome the continued contact; people who join the FSVC seem to stay involved.
Three years ago Mr. Douglas had never heard of the organization when he got a call in his Atlanta law office asking if he would be willing to give advice, over the telephone, to the Central Bank of Lithuania. From that small beginning, the Alston & Bird partner went on to make multiple trips to Eastern Europe, accompanied Mr. Spindler on the Indonesian adventure, and eventually joined the organization's steering committee.
"Part of the attraction," Mr. Douglas says, "is that FSVC does such interesting and important stuff, and part of it is that these countries have a terrible need for something that I happen to know a little bit about."
The former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. general counsel says he was surprised at how rudimentary bank regulation was in Eastern Europe. "They didn't need our bank supervision manuals on assessing derivative exposure - they needed to know how to assess credit quality," he says incredulously. "What they probably needed was an FDIC supervision manual from 1940."
Nicholas Ketcha, former director of the FDIC's supervision division, recently spent three weeks in Kiev, helping the Ukrainian Central Bank implement a new risk-focused examination process based on the FDIC's Camels system.
"It energized me," he says. With a translator supplied by the FSVC, Mr. Ketcha worked with both the examiners and more senior officials at the Central Bank. "They don't have a lot of infrastructure and they don't have the sense of authority that examiners have here, but I was pleasantly surprised by their work ethic."
Now the head of the New Jersey Division of Banking, Mr. Ketcha is trying to arrange for a contingent of Ukrainian bank examiners to visit the United States next year to observe a bank exam.
"I always say that [FSVC] is doing God's work, and it's hard to argue with that," says board president John Walker.
A partner at the Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett law firm, Mr. Walker has been with the organization since the beginning and is a veteran of dozens of trips to Russia, where he has helped develop banking laws. He says that for many who get involved, it is refreshing to be part of a process free from political agendas and bottom-line business pressure.
"We're not pushing anything; we're purely tapping into the volunteer spirit of the financial sector of this country," he says. Nearly 10 years after the FSVC's founding, he said, there is still no shortage of volunteers, and they are involved in more projects than ever.
"This organization is postured to do far more than it already does," he says. "The constraint - the only constraint in my mind - is funding."
Most of the group's financial backing comes from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has supported the FSVC regularly - but sometimes reluctantly - since its founding. "It has always been puzzling to me that we have to fight for the funding that we need to survive," says board co-chairman John Whitehead.
"USAID is inclined to favor its own staff in these countries, and to think that their own people can provide the same advice we can, which is clearly not the case," he says.
While Mr. Whitehead is adamant about the organization deserving better support from the government, Mr. Walker would like to see private-sector companies step up. They stand to benefit from the emergence of strong banking systems in developing countries, he says, and ought to contribute to the effort.
"For years I have thought that the financial sector should support FSVC not just with volunteers but financially," Mr. Walker says. "A little bit of money can go a long way."