Most people have at least heard of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but few people outside of bankers understand the role each plays. Lately, some of that same confusion can be found among the countries who are World Bank and IMF clients.

Although they started out with different roles, the World Bank and the IMF increasingly have found themselves dealing with the same people, doing the same things - and sometimes issuing conflicting orders. There is talk of perhaps merging the two to eliminate the confusion. The idea makes sense.Both the World Bank and the IMF were established after World War II and are jointly owned by the 151 governments that provide the financing. The two institutions have ties to the United Nations but tend to operate independently. They also have something the United Nations doesn't have - real clout, due to their lending power.

The World Bank was set up to help countries devastated by World War II to recover a decent standard of living. Afterward, the bank became more involved with poor Third World nations, making easy, long-term loans for such things as schools, hospitals, roads, ports and other basic needs.

The IMF was set up to help keep national currencies stable, preventing big changes in currency values that upset world trade. As recently as the 1970s, Britain and Italy were being helped. But the IMF also has gradually found itself working mostly in the Third World.

Often, the exchange rates for a poor country were only part of a problem, and the IMF offered big loans and arranged for more from private banks. To get the loans, countries often had to change their economic policies, undertake austerity programs and devalue their currencies.

Clearly, both the IMF and World Bank are engaged in nearly the same work but approach it from differing philosophies. One has been known to make loans to the same country where the other had refused a loan.

While they meet twice a year to ostensibly coordinate their actions, that may not be enough. The World Bank and the IMF have headquarters in Washington, D.C., right across the street from each other. Under the circumstances, perhaps they should merge as different departments of the same agency.