Negotiating the Kiribati Road Rehabilitation Project

When preparing a new project for the World Bank, the final stage is its presentation to the Bank’s Board wherein they (hopefully) approve the project’s design and provide the funds for implementation. The last major hurdle to reach the Board is to undertake ‘Negotiations’. This is where the activities of the project are agreed with the government, the terms of finance (grant, credit, loan) are confirmed, and the final details are resolved. When dealing with multi-million dollar projects, it can be appreciated that negotiations are critical to all parties. Last night around 8 p.m. we finished the negotiations for the Kiribati Road Rehabilitation Project (KRRP). As he was leaving my lawyer Raj commented that after all his years in the Bank that was definitely a first … and not to be repeated. I had to agree. It culminated a nightmare of a week.

Decision Meeting

In order to negotiate we have to undertake ‘Appraisal’ of the project. This is where we advise our management that the project design is complete, all issues raised have been addressed, and that we are ready to negotiate. Before we can appraise we have to have a ‘Decision Meeting’ which reviews where we are, confirms that we are ready to appraise, and confirms the readiness of the project for appraisal and negotiations.

I tried unsuccessfully to have the Decision Meeting in December but key people were travelling so it got pushed back to January. Unfortunately, with a Board date on 1 March, we were going to be very tight to have enough time to get everything done. It became complicated when my lawyer told me his daughter was being called to the Bar on 20 January. Kiribati was out—only two flights a week—and while he offered to come to Sydney to negotiate, we agreed that it was too risky because it was a long way to go and, being winter, there was a distinct probability that there would be a flight disruption so he would miss this important event. Since Raj wanted me to be with him, I came up a plan …

On Tuesday the 11th at 07:00 Sydney time we would have the Decision Meeting. This would be via videoconference with Washington D.C., and others connecting via audio—including myself from New Zealand. While the Decision Meeting was taking place, my irreplaceable consultant Colleen would be travelling to Tarawa in Kiribati. Assuming the Decision Meeting authorized negotiations, I would hop on a flight at 13:00 to Washington D.C.  While I was travelling the 24+ hours to D.C., Colleen would appraise the project, and I would address any issues arising from the Decision Meeting. Thanks to the International Date Line (remember Phineas Fogg?), I would arrive Tuesday night in D.C.  I would then have Wednesday and Thursday morning to get the necessary clearances. We would start negotiations starting at 15:00 on Thursday, and hopefully finish by Friday.

The Decision Meeting went fairly well. The discussions were dominated by an issue of how we proposed to co-finance the civil works with the Asian Development Bank. In the end it was agreed that the project was ready for appraisal so I finished packing and then headed out to hop the flight to San Francisco.

Preparing for Negotiations

It wasn’t a chilling out flight, as I had some important ‘homework’ to do on the trip from the Decision Meeting. As soon as I got to San Francisco it was onto the Internet to send my homework out, and address other issues which had arisen. Just enough time to do all of that before hopping the flight to D.C.—and more homework. At Dulles Airport the baggage was slower than usual—it was snowing—which gave me the opportunity to send out the next batch of homework while waiting by the luggage carrousel (and getting more homework). There was a long queue for the taxi and by the time I arrived at the hotel—22:00—it was two more hours before all was done and I could crash for the night.

The next morning I found the Appraisal Completion Note from Colleen and so after a bit more work I hit ‘send’ and out went the package for clearances. By 17:00 D.C. time we had the local clearances, and then it was off to Sydney for my manager’s clearance which came through very quickly so by 23:00 the package went out for the final clearances by the Chief Counsel and the Country Director.

Thursday was hopefully the day for negotiations. We got Chief Counsel clearance at 10 a.m. Raj agreed that we could start negotiations as planned at 15:30 so it was all set—good call: the Country Director clearance came through at 16:30 🙂

Negotiations

The Bank has a very sophisticated conference call system. When we were ready to start the problem was that they couldn’t connect with Kiribati. In the end we managed to do it, but we couldn’t hear them at all clearly. Thus started a series of permutations and combinations of communication techniques to get us through:

Plan B Skype. Colleen called my computer from hers and the line was crystal clear. Score one for free computer-to-computer calling.

We started negotiations and it went well, but we noticed a degradation in the call quality as time progressed. Not too much of a surprise, as Tarawa is a remote atoll in the Pacific with a satellite link, and there is only so much bandwidth available. As time goes on more people connect to the internet so things slow down.  Still, we made progress with a rooster crowing in the background (in Kiribati—not D.C.) adding a unique ambience to the discussions.

When my colleague Thao was going through the disbursement letter things began to really break down. We started getting dropped calls and then couldn’t hear them so time for …

Plan C Skype computer-to-phone. We called the Ministry of Finance’s land line from my computer and continued the discussions. After a while we could not hear them on the land line, although they could hear us, so it was time for …
Plan D Colleen’s mobile phone. Although her phone had a small speaker, everyone huddled around it and we continued.  Eventually that became problematic so it was time for …
Plan E We called the land line so they could hear us easily, and then they used Skype Chat to give us their comments. On a contentious point it was time for …
Plan F We called both on the land line—so they could hear us—and also called Colleen’s mobile, so we could hear them. But that didn’t work very well so it was time for …
Plan G Colleen used Skype to call my cell phone so Raj and I huddled about. This was working so Plan G was also used to conference call our procurement colleagues in the Sydney office.

In the end Plans B and G got us through. Whew. Quite the challenge but we got there in the end.

Aftermath

Thanks to Colleen’s versatility, the support of the government, Raj, Thao and our entire team we met our goal and successfully completed negotiations. What a week! Now it is time to get the package ready for the Board and then—most importantly—to get the project under way.

Unfortunately I now have three more projects to prepare urgently to present to our Board 17 May. But that will be another story… and hopefully without Skype: I’ve told everyone to be in Sydney on 28 March. Much nicer to negotiate face-to-face than huddling around cell phones and computers.

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4 Responses to Negotiating the Kiribati Road Rehabilitation Project

  1. Kyle Bennett says:

    Let’ hope that this complicated, nightmare of a week, doesn’t repeat itself. Well done for using your initiative in getting through to Kiribati. Good luck with this and future projects.

  2. I’m sure you thoroughly enjoyed the challenge…at least when it was over. But if you have meetings in Sydney March 28, and maybe longer, what about the SA Ironman?

    Mom-in-law.

    • triduffer says:

      I wouldn’t quite use the word enjoy. It’s kind of like doing an Ironman triathlon. Endure is a better word way of describing these things… Would have been much better without the communications failures.

      I’ve timed the next set of negotiations perfectly. They will be at the start of my final taper for the Ironman South Africa race. I then have the week of the race to get the final packages prepared, and I can recover from both the work and race at the same time 🙂

  3. Emily Dubin says:

    I don’t remember going so high in the alphabet when we worked together (perhaps only as far as Plan C?). I’m glad to know you continue to be so versatile and effective.
    Cheers!

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