2008 was to be a year of change, with my transfer from the World Bank’s ‘East Asia and Pacific’ (EAP) region to ‘Europe and Central Asia’ (ECA). The Bank generally has a 3-5-7 transfer ‘policy’: after 3 years you can transfer regions; after 5 years you should transfer; after 7 years they will transfer you. With it being 5 years in April since I joined the Bank as a consultant, and 5 years in October since I became full-time staff, I had been considering moving on.
There were a number of options which I considered. South Asia (Indian sub-continent) was very attractive, as I had worked in India for several years and am an ‘Indiaphile’. I love the colours, sights, sounds of South Asia, its culture and deep history. There was an excellent position opening up in Delhi, but that would have torpedoed my marriage as Lis didn’t have a positive experience when we lived there in the mid-90’s so won’t return. Sub-Saharan Africa was also an attractive proposition because there is so much that needs to be done. But after talking with colleagues in different regions and the former transport sector director Maryvonne, I opted for ECA since it was a challenging work program of more developed countries, and the manager, Motoo Konishi, had a reputation for being one of the best in the sector. He expected his staff to perform to the highest possible level and I looked forward to the opportunity to work for him.
What I had hoped would be a smooth transition between regions was complicated by the fact that the Hubei Provincial Communications Department (HPCD) requested that I not be transferred until I completed preparation of the Yiba Highway Project. This is the most challenging expressway project that the Bank has ever undertaken in China – and the most challenging that the HPCD had done as well. We were implementing a number of innovations in the area of environmental and social safeguard protection and the HPCD were concerned about a new Task Team Leader (TTL) coming in from the Bank’s side. This, coupled with the fact that the under-staffing of the EAP Transport Sector meant that there was nobody available to take over my portfolio without being totally overloaded themselves, led Motoo to kindly agree that I would provide the necessary cross-support to EAP to ensure a smooth transition.
While on one level I was flattered that the Chinese didn’t want me to go – it is more common for the Bank to get a letter thanking them for the inputs of a TTL and suggesting that it is perhaps time for the TTL to share his expertise elsewhere – I was daunted at the prospects of learning a new job while having a lot to do on my old job. However, I did not want to let my client or colleagues down so agreed to do what was necessary.
I had hoped to work in such salubrious countries such as Croatia or Montenegro, but in the end was assigned to the team working on the South Caucasus countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. I would be working under Olivier Le Ber who had been leading the work there for several years. He recommended some books to read before my first visit and they gave me some basic insight into where I would be working.
All countries were part of the former Soviet Union, and had received their independence just under 20 years ago. It can be described in terms of geo-politics as this: Azerbaijan is Muslim; Georgia Eastern Orthodox Christian; Armenia is Armenian Christian. Azerbaijan and Georgia lean towards the west; Armenia towards Russia. There are a number of border and political disputes which are ongoing. All in all, a very interesting place to work!
For example, there was a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990’s and this led to a large number of displaced peoples in both countries – Azeris who left land now occupied by Armenians, and vice-versa. Although the fighting was effectively over, the war was still unresolved. This meant that Turkey, who are closely affiliated with Azeris (both Muslim of Turk origin) has closed its borders with Armenia. So the only road/rail links to Armenia are from Georgia in the north and Iran in the south.
In Georgia there was several ‘enclaves’ which had decided to secede and declare their independence, with the support of Russia. These include Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia is a very pro-American, in fact they apparently have the second largest number of troops fighting in Iraq after the Americans. I heard an interview on the BBC with the Minister of Defence who said that this had been invaluable experience for the country in terms of upgrading the quality and efficiency of the armed forces.
The transport program in the three countries is quite varied, including lots of new roads, road maintenance, urban transport, and railways. With new countries, a new team to work with, and a set of new countries it will be a challenge to get up to speed, but a challenge I am looking forward to.