April 8, 2021 marked the end of my career at the World Bank when I took early retirement due to ill health. I received a traumatic brain injury after crashing out of the 2018 Tour Aotearoa which made it impossible to handle the demands of the World Bank.
A time for reflection on 17+ years which I would summarize as:
- It was a blast
- I had the best job in the world
This is going to be a lengthy blog post which when I’m older, and even more dottier, I can remind myself of when I had the job of my dreams, travelled to amazing places, and worked with some of the nicest and most talented people I’ve ever met. This, Part 1, is about the job and some of my experiences through a series of the ‘three most memorable …’ Part 2 is about the people. Of course there is some overlap. And, as you can see from the action photo taken below in Kiribati, it wasn’t all work!
Joining the World Bank
I blame it all on Bill Paterson.
It 1983 I had just started my Master’s Degree at the University of Auckland and was looking for a topic for my dissertation. Bill was visiting New Zealand to attend the ‘Roading Symposium’ and he gave a lecture at the university on his work at the World Bank. I had one thought: “I want your job”. Be careful what you wish for …
The photo below was taken at Bill’s home on his retirement in 2007. Next to Bill is my ‘Big Sister’ Genie Jensen who also worked at the Bank, and to the right Bill’s wonderful wife Ros. My longsuffering wife Lis is next to me.
I did my M.Eng. dissertation on this computer model being developed for the economic evaluation of road investment projects called ‘HDM-III’. Just over a decade later—after completing my Ph.D. on the microsimulation of traffic on two-lane highways—I led the work to develop the technical models for what became HDM-4. Those, and other career choices such as working on World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) financed projects in Burma, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines, and Thailand were part of my career strategy to get a job at the World Bank.
I was working in Siam Rep Cambodia in 2002 when I was contacted by the Bank and asked to apply for a job. They flew me to Bangkok and I was interviewed by Richard Scurfield and others. A couple of days later the Bank’s Human Resources (HR) department called and made me the formal offer of a position as a ‘Senior Transport Specialist’ based in Washington D.C. It had only taken 19 years but the day had finally arrived!
I told the HR department that I needed one week to pray about it and talk it over with Lis. I was reading this book for my morning devotions and the next morning it started with the line: Exodus 20:3 “ ’Thou shalt have no other gods before me’ … and that includes your job.” Ouch! As I prayed about it over the week it became clear that God did not want me to take the job. Having been focused on this job for so long there was only one thing to do … I turned them down. I told them it wasn’t the job, or the package, just that I had prayed about it and decided it wasn’t right for me.
This was the toughest decision of my life. Even harder than asking Lis to marry me!
With the Bank job off the table I did what any normal person would do. Some months later I went for a 2 month bicycle ride the length of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. Just before the end I was sheltering in a tent during a bad storm south of Silver City New Mexico when I got this really strong impression from God: you can take the World Bank job, but you can’t ask for it. I thought this was no more than hunger and tiredness as it was now eight months since I had turned them down. How could I also take a job without asking for it?
I finished my ride and went up to Toronto to visit my parents. At 9:30 am on the Monday morning Richard called from the World Bank asking if I changed my mind. Well, since you asked …
Many people ask me why I believe this happened since I could have joined the Bank a year earlier. It was crystal clear to me. It was my personal and professional ambition which had guided me those 19 years towards this job. God wanted me to instead recognize that I was there to serve His will, not mine. I won’t say that I always succeeded, but the knowledge that I was at the Bank to serve God really guided me during my time at the Bank. Having a moral compass in an institution like the Bank is essential. Unfortunately, as would be expected in any large institution, some at the Bank (particularly in the senior ranks) lack such a compass. Fortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule and as Part 2 tells, I worked with many great people.
The Bank’s Bureaucracy
As everyone who has worked for, or interacted with, the Bank knows, it has a huge bureaucracy. I was a ‘Task Team Leader’ (TTL) who did operational projects for most of my career. There were probably about 2,000+ of us out of the 14,000+ of Bank staff. I used to (half) joke that for every one of us in the field trying to do the work there were six others telling us how we could do it better. Our work would have multiple levels of reviews with a range of reviewers, and seldom was there anyone who would say ‘this is well done, I don’t have anything more to contribute’.
After going through this for a few years I realised that there was a simple way to put it into context. I called it the “crap tax”: the stuff I had to persevere with in order to make the most of the opportunities that being a TTL presents you. It really is the best job imaginable. Where else could you see a technical need, conceptualise a solution, (hopefully) mobilise the finance needed to implement the solution, help the client manage the designers, consultants, contractors, and see it through to completion?
This leads to a side anecdote about budgeting. We were assigned budgets for our projects which had to cover our time, travel, consultants etc. As mentioned in Part 2, when I joined the Bank I was assigned Sally Burningham to be my mentor. One of the first things she told me (and I’m sure Sally will deny it!) was “Don’t worry about budget. There is always money floating around somewhere and you get into more trouble by keeping to budget and doing a poor job, than going over budget and doing a good job.”
This put me in good stead moving forward. My view was simply this: management have asked me to do a job and I will do it. It is your responsibility as management to find me the money to do what I’ve been asked to do.
This leads to an side anecdote. Some 10+ years after I joined the Bank my then manager Michel Kerf asked me how I was tracking with regard to my budget. I said “I have no idea. I don’t even know where to check it.” He was mortified and with the help of our team assistant learned where to look at budgets. Not that I bothered very often.
Get Out of the Car
As mentioned above, for much of my career I was a TTL which meant I was responsible for the successful delivery of all aspects of a project. This meant working with clients to identify a project, designing how it would work, getting cleared by the Bank’s Board of Executive Directors, and then implementing the project.
What I learned early on was that there were effectively two types of TTLs at the Bank: those who focused mainly on getting a project to the Board (the easy bit), and those who put a lot of effort at ensuring the project was implemented to its full potential.
I was initially assigned to work in China under Michel Bellier, and ultimately took over his projects in Hubei. Later, I took over Yushiro Kawabata’s projects in Jiangxi. Michel had assembled a great team so I was spoiled. We had (below left-to-right) Anil Somani (environmental specialist), Jean-Marie Braun (highway engineer extraordinaire), and Zhefu Lui (very dedicated social specialist).
Anil taught me his ‘rules for supervision’
- Get out of the car
- Walk to the high points
- Look behind bridges, fences, walls
- You will be rewarded with many examples of non-compliance!
These lessons served me well, although in future years I had colleagues criticise me for finding a variety of issues on projects. Yes, because I had actually bothered to look thoroughly for things that might be amiss.
I worked with Anil long enough to recognise his tone of voice. It was “Chris, I have found something that you won’t like but you need to deal with it”. There was a time when we were in Taiyuan doing the reconnaissance for the urban transport project. Anil came up to me and in that tone of voice said “this is a former battery factory”. I said, right and so my problem is? “It will be contaminated with lead, zinc, and all sorts of other heavy metals and will need major decontamination.” Another time was in Hubei when he said “this road is going through an area with karst caves”. I said, right and so my problem is? “There will be caves with unique ecosystems that potentially exist nowhere else so we need to do biodiversity surveys”. As I describe later in the post, this led to surprising results.
I loved working with Anil and dragged him all over the world with me as thanks to him we set ourselves up for the best possible outcomes on our projects. While other TTLs didn’t like working with Anil because he had such high standards, those reviewing our projects for environmental compliance told me that they rested easier when they saw Anil’s name on the project team.
This brings me to the most important ‘rule’ for a successful project: listen to your team. I was fortunate in that I always had people much smarter than I was on my team. So I viewed my job as essentially getting out of their way and facilitating them to get the outcomes we all wanted. Sometimes there were other considerations which as TTL I had to bring into play. However, checking one’s ego at the door and letting your team do their work is the best way to run any project.
I’ve Been Everywhere…
There is a travelling song which encapsulates my career at the Bank:
Listen, Bud I’ve travelled
Every road in this here land.
I’ve been everywhere, man
I’ve been everywhere, man
‘Cross the deserts bare, man
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man
Of travel, I’ve had my share, man
I’ve been everywhere.
The song doesn’t mention the Pacific Islands which are the opposite to mountains!
The map below shows the countries over my career which I have directly worked in (red) and those where I provided support to projects (green). Except for Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK, all of them were part of my Bank career.
The image below is an excerpt of the range of projects I worked on in different countries.
Our job at the Bank was to help the economic, environmental and social development of our client countries. To do this, we brought the best solutions we could identify to the projects. A key aspect of this was to always look for opportunities on our projects to innovate and make a difference. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean.
In 2014 we had a donor’s meeting in Hubei attended by Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Japan, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and others for China to share their experiences on addressing environmental and social impacts on major transport projects. Flying back to New Zealand afterwards, I was travelling with Adrian from DFAT. We were chatting and he asked the question why the Bank was not supporting DFAT’s policy that all projects with DFAT funding needed to explicitly consider how to mitigate the potential for child abuse that could arise on the project. Most people aren’t aware that if one does a profile of the typical consultant working on donor funded projects, it is pretty close to that of a child abuser (and over the years several paedophiles have been found on donor financed projects–but none of mine!).
Adrian’s question resonated with me and so I asked Lasale Cocker and Anne-Marie Bishop from the Pacific Aviation Investment Project (PAIP) team if they would be willing to look at what DFAT was doing and come up with a suggestion. With the help of Anil Somani we developed a ‘Code of Conduct’ which outlined how to address child abuse. As described later, this was foundational work for the Bank’s ‘Good Practice Note on Addressing Gender Based Violence (GBV) on Investment Projects’.
Related to that, we were doing the preparation mission for the third additional financing for the Tuvalu Aviation Investment Project. My consultant Deviyani Dixit commented to me that there was no counselling service for survivors of GBV. I said OK, why don’t we create it? So we wrote $US80,000 into the project budget so that the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre would come to Tuvalu and do the training. I recall our lawyer Loren Atkins contacting me to ask how establishing this survivor counselling service related to improving the airport—not that she was opposed! When I explained that we were contractually requiring activities to prevent GBV and so needed this in case something happened she was on board. Below is a photo of the women at one of our trainings. A number themselves were survivors so for the first time they received counselling and support. Australia DFAT later commented that this was one of the Bank’s best initiatives for Tuvalu
An unusual opportunity arose for me also in Tuvalu which had nothing to do with transport. Nora Weisskopf and I were in Tuvalu during and after Cyclone Pam and so participated in the post-disaster work. This ranged from unloading emergency supplies, to doing the ‘Post Disaster Needs Assessment’ where we estimated the economic losses from the cyclone. I remember sitting in the office trying to estimate the number of pigs killed and their value (seriously). We were successful: we scored $US 3m for Tuvalu (which with a total national GDP of $35 million was a lot of money. Below is a photo of me unloading the NZ Air Force C130 (with fish from Nelson near where I live!) and Nora pulling more than her weight.
With that context, onto ‘My Three Most:’
Friends who are parents say that the don’t have a favourite child. That may be the case, but I definitely have some countries where I enjoyed working more than others. There are places that I would eagerly return to tomorrow; and others where I am glad I never have to return there again. And yes, there are countries who were glad to be rid of me as well!
I recall the author of an ‘Implementation Completion Report’, which is prepared after a project closes, commenting that she had never seen such split views on a Bank staffer: the Government were very unhappy with me while the project beneficiaries all spoke very highly of my efforts to support them. Elsewhere, Natalya Stankevich told me that one country I worked in was glad to see the back of me, whereas their neighbour asked the Bank’s Country Manager if there was not a way for me to stay on after I announced my transfer. My managers sure had a hard time (more on that below).
So my three favourite countries, in alphabetical order are:
Armenia is down as one of my three favourite countries, three favourite projects, and three best project managers. So clearly I have very fond memories of the place!
It is a rugged and often inhospitable country, but what made Armenia so special for me was its people. Perhaps it is the outcome of being a small country in a difficult neighbourhood, but they were the most resilient and pragmatic people that I have ever worked with. I really loved the way that I could have open discussions with them about opportunities to innovate and do different things on our projects. After debating the advantages and disadvantages, we would come to an agreement and then they would get on and just do it.
It was that attitude which made it possible for us to have such a successful project. Below I share a copy of the ‘Certificate of Appreciation’ from the Minister of Transport for my work in Armenia. It is one of most special memories of my time the Bank working in Armenia.
I worked for five years in China from 2003 and it was professionally the highlight of my career. Working on projects including expressways, rural roads and urban transport at a time when China’s development was accelerating it afforded me the breadth and depth of experiences that few ever have.
As with Armenia, the people in China were amazing. Hard working and hospitable to a fault, they would go way beyond the call of duty. One time in Jiangxi they found out it was my birthday and hired a Karaoke room for an evening of singing and dancing, along with the most brightly coloured birthday cake I have ever seen.
My time in China also afforded me the opportunity to learn more of the history of China, in particular how we in the west have done so much destruction to this amazing country over the centuries. One of my Chinese friends put it this way—China has been down for the last 150 years but they are returning to our position as a world leader. I’m far more sanguine about this than a lot of others, probably as a result of the deep respect I developed for the people.
I’ve done a few blog posts on my adventures there:
- Ruijin: Home of the First Red Government of China
- Pingyao Ancient City
- Taklamkan Desert in Xinjiang
- Mummies of China
- Wudang Taoist Mountain
- Harbin Winter Festival
These give a flavour of the amazing people and country that is China.
From the largest country we move to the smallest with 10,000+ people. Located in the Pacific about 3 hours north-east of Fiji, I first went to Tuvalu in 2010. My manager Chas Feinstein had called me into his office and told me that the Bank had a new member country and we needed to do something. Would I go and see what transport opportunities there were. So I flew in on Tuesday and Thursday morning presented to the Prime Minister a proposal that we include Tuvalu in our aviation project which we were at that time preparing with Tonga and Kiribati. So started a relationship with this unique and special country.
If there is a common theme between my three most favourite countries it is the people. The Tuvaluans are Polynesians like the New Zealand Maori, and were just an absolute delight to work with. They were smart and appreciative of the help and opportunities that came with our projects. The example above of starting GBV counselling is one of them. Another example arose when our project manager Vitoli noticed children playing with the construction equipment after hours. He arranged for the school children to be hosted by the contractor for a visit where they were told about the dangers etc. of the equipment.
The best way of showing how unique Tuvalu is is via the video below. In a few minutes you will see just what an amazing place it is.
Most Memorable Projects
Here I will cheat … there are four.
Armenia – Lifeline Road Improvement Project
I started off 2009 preparing a new project for the World Bank called the ‘Lifeline Road Improvement Project’. It was a very demanding time as we had only seven weeks to prepare the project and take it to the Board. Little did I realize that this would prove to be the most satisfying work that I have done in my professional career. Rather than let me tell you about it, check out the video below. We have estimated that almost 12,000 person-months of employment were generated from the project, helping keep large numbers of families from falling further into poverty. Oh yes, we also built some very nice roads 🙂
China – Hubei Yiba Highway Project
My last project in China before transferring the Europe and Central Asia in 2008 was the Yichang-Badong (Yiba) expressway. This was a US$ 2.2 billion expressway through some very challenging terrain, including the ‘Three Gorges National Park’. The following key statistics summarize why as an engineer it was so special:
- 172 km of expressways and 35.4 km of interconnecting roads
- 148 bridges for a total length of 70 km
- 75 tunnels for a total length of 61 km
- 3.75 million m3 of earthworks
- US$ 12.6 million/km
With challenging terrain, over 70% of the expressway consisted of tunnels and bridges (with the longest tunnel some 7.5 km long). This was a flagship project for the Hubei provincial government who showed how it was possible to mitigate the negative environmental impact of the project in such a sensitive area. I was very honoured to be given an award by the Province for my work on this project.
The best way of appreciating this engineering feat is through an amazing 18 minute movie the HPTD did of the final Yiba expressway. I’ve uploaded it to Youtube and you can watch it below.
Pacific – Pacific Aviation Investment Project
Darin Cusack can be credited for the ‘Pacific Aviation Investment Project’ (PAIP). He was the CEO for Tonga Airports and needed his runway resurfaced. The problem was that it would take up all of the Bank’s funding allocation for Tonga to do it so the other sectors (e.g. health, education) would get nothing. No way it would happen. Demetri suggested to Chas and I that there was an easy solution: do a regional project. I had not heard of these but Demetri explained that they attracted a 2/3 funding allocation from a regional pool of funds which meant that we could do a large project with only a fraction of the national IDA allocation.
There had never been an regional aviation project and so I worked with Frode Davenger from the regional IDA team to put forward a case for why it should qualify for funding. The other challenge was preparing the documentation as our management could not decide on how to best articulate the project. Huge time sink (i.e. crap tax) but I just put up with it and in the end we had Phase 1 with Kiribati, Tonga and Tuvalu. We later included Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, as well as the ‘Pacific Aviation Safety Office’.
We ended up with over US$ 250 million of investments in everything from runways to institutional reform. We transformed the aviation sector in the Pacific making it far safer and more resilient to natural disasters. The project was replicated in other sectors (e.g. fisheries), and also helped guide a similar project in the Caribbean.
Below is part of our aviation team in Vanuatu in 2015. From left to right Darin Cusack, Nora Weisskopf, Chris De Serio, myself, Deviyani Dixit, Dr. Charles Schlumberger, and Loren Atkins.
Readers will have noted that I call him Dr. Charles. The Bank has a convention that people with Ph.Ds do not use their titles, unless they are a medical doctor. So with Dr. Bennett, Dr. Faiz, Dr. Butcher-Gollach, etc. on a mission I just called everyone Mssr. or Mme. However, Dr. Charles pointed out to me that he had checked the Bank’s archives and could not find any reference to this convention, and so henceforth Dr. Charles it was!
Tonga – Cyclone Ian Housing Project
In 2014 Cyclone Ian devastated the island group of Ha’apai. I was working on two transport projects in Tonga and went out as part of the post-disaster needs assessment team. One thing I learned: don’t get into a small boat with lots of Tongans without checking if the boat leaks! This is a photo of me bailing water to keep us afloat.
With the help of Colleen Butcher-Gollach, Megan Schlotjes, Nora Weisskopf and Monica Moldovan we did our best to house the victims of the cyclones. I recall one old woman coming to me and saying that she never dreamed she would ever live in such a nice home.
With over half of the beneficiaries widows or solo mothers, there was an imperative to see that they were not disadvantaged by Tonga’s laws which preclude women from owning land. We adopted the approach introduced 10+ years earlier by Bill Paterson with the Cyclone Waka project wherein he separated the land from the home, with the land being provided through a 20 year occupancy license (I adopted this approach in New Zealand to solve our housing crisis–www.mygbhousing.info). Unfortunately, there were issues with this on our project and I left the project as TTL before I was able to get a satisfactory outcome. But we still got people into cyclone proof homes, and below is a photo of one happy family, myself and the builders.
A lot of things went right with the project, but there were also a number of lessons in terms of how it could have been done better. We were asked to document these and so the team wrote a very detailed and candid report which was not appreciated by the higher levels in the Bank. As a result it was unfortunately never published. Shame, as the next time a disaster like this happens those lessons would have been of value in improving the response.
Memorable Culinary Experiences
I am a vegetarian, often a vegan. When working in the Pacific I heard this regular ‘joke’: “Do you know what a vegetarian is? Someone who doesn’t know how to fish”. Life would have been a lot easier as a pescatarian, but as a matter of principle I don’t believe that anything should die for my nutrition so I never succumbed.
Kiribati was by far the most challenging place for food. The main island of Tarawa where I spent all my time had 11 restaurants. In 10 of those I had three choices: vegetable rice, vegetable noodles, or an omelette. The vegetables consisted of cabbage grown by the Taiwan Mission program, or frozen vegetables. When the boat was late arriving, the latter ran out so it was just omelettes. Below is myself and Sofia in the Chineese restaurant. She was fortunately omnivorous! A sign of just how tough things are in Tarawa, they don’t even grow bananas! When these were brought in from the outer islands we would rush and buy some to enjoy fresh fruit.
The 11th restaurant was the ‘Japanese Curry House’ which was not Japanese, nor did it sell curry, but it did have a Korean bimibap. After two weeks of missions I was really appreciative of getting home to New Zealand and a more balanced diet!
At the other extreme was Georgia. Along with Turkey, Georgia is an absolute culinary delight for a vegetarian. They have an incredible variety of dishes, and the quality of the produce is off the charts. My mouth waters as I think about the tomatoes. They had incredibly tasty cheeses and breads, yum. Below is a typical meal … with my driver Ramaz to the right enjoying his wine. I found a Georgian restaurant in Toronto and even though it was a long drive I would frequent it and indulge myself. Ramaz was a great driver. One time he was driving me to Baku and didn’t want to go all the way so he negotiated me a seat on an Azeri Mercedes and they drove me from the border to Baku. I was a bit worried, but trusted Ramaz and it all worked out fine.
Of course no discussion of food would be incomplete without China whose variety of dishes is second to none. One aspect of being on Bank missions was that we would have formal banquets where they would lay on all sorts of food. In fact sometimes they had what I’m pretty certain were threatened or endangered species. I tried without success to get the Bank to adopt an ‘ethical eating policy’ wherein we would have been able to advise our clients that we could not participate in banquets where these were served, but management did not support the idea. At these banquets toasting was essential but as a non-drinker it would have been rude. So I had a ‘designated drinker’ who would take all the toasts on my behalf. This was Zhefu Liu who manfully rose to the occasion. It was only in Jiangxi where he met his match …
One final anecdote on eating in China. I used to carry a card with me for when I had to go to restaurants without my interpreter, listing an assortment of vegetarian dishes. One time I was with Jean-Marie and the server went through my card saying ‘no, no, no… ‘ to each item. She then pulls out the menu and starts pointing to dishes. So I used the Monte Carlo approach where I randomly said ‘yes, no, no, yes …’. One of the dishes I got was the best Chinese dish I ever had in my life. But of course I could never have it again because I had no idea what it was!
Interesting Corruption Cases
Corruption is the reality in many of the countries the World Bank operates in (and it is everywhere to a certain extent) so one cannot completely avoid it, but one can do everything one can to limit it. This isn’t something that we talk about too publicly, but now I’m not longer at the Bank I figured that I would include three stories here. However, I will be circumspect.
Early on in my time at the Bank Jerry Lebo had a problem on one of his projects. The client was procuring vehicles and had very specific requirements. We were on mission and I joked that it sounded like they wanted to buy a BMW. “No, a Lexus” they responded. One of their bosses insisted that he get a Lexus through the project. Jerry noticed that they kept on putting in some specific requirements for vehicles which would have eliminated all except the ones they wanted, so he kept on rejecting these until he got a specification that was generic enough that could be procured appropriately. This project managemen unit (PMU) later became so infamous with a multi-million dollar political scandal that they have their own Wikipedia page. Jerry was a bit of a magnet for things like this. He told me once how he was offered an envelope of money by a contractor. Another time a PMU offered him a “very beautiful” girl to host him during his visits.
Unlike Jerry, I never was offered anything, even though I was accused of corruption by a retired colleague! The back story to this was I was TTL for a project and noticed a disconnect between the ‘cut to spoil’ and ‘cut to fill’ for earthworks on the project. When building a road wherever possible you take the existing surplus materials and use them elsewhere. This saves you from carting them off site for disposal, and replacing them with more expensive imported materials. The ratio was supposed to be something like 30/70 but was reversed, resulting in a huge payment of over $US 5 million for the contractor.
I went to the laboratory and asked to see all of the testing records for the materials that were rejected. They had disposed of them. I pointed out that as an ISO 9001 accredited laboratory they had to keep records, but they didn’t. It was pretty clear that the contractor, laboratory and supervision engineer were working together on the scam so I reported them to the client and to the Bank’s Integrity Department (INT). Shortly afterwards, INT contacted me to say that a retired TTL had made what they had assessed to be a frivolous complaint against me, saying that I was giving work to my old ROMDAS company. INT said it was clearly related to what I had brought to their attention with the cut and fill scam. What this person didn’t know was that when I joined the Bank I had declared all of my conflicts of interest and that had ensured from day one that these conflicts were properly managed. The old rule ‘a conflict declared is a conflict managed’ is very true.
My most memorable situation was a project where I noticed a disconnect between the rate of expenditure and the rate of construction. The CEO of the Ministry said “It is all swings and roundabouts” but the difference was so large that I got all the invoices and drilled down into the detail. Some countries (like the Philippines and Indonesia) have very sophisticated schemes, but this country didn’t and so it was pretty easy to find. They had invoiced for works in some remote areas and had been fully paid, but the progress reports for those areas showed nothing had started. Had they ‘buried’ the payments in larger parts of the program I would never have noticed it, but it was very clear. The CEO acknowledged that they had made ‘incentive’ payments to the contractors to work faster and submitted false invoices for work that was not done. He later lost his job over this.
I followed the Bank’s procedures and reported this immediately to INT. I then reported it to management. I got this very critical email from the Country Director berating me for not discussing my findings with the country management team before reporting to INT. I responded that I had had checked with the headquarters team who advised me to report it immediately to INT and then management. If the Country Director wanted to have a different policy then that should be clearly stated to all staff so we know how we are to operate. Of course he never did that since it would have rounded back on him big time. INT came back to me quite excited as this was the first INT case from the region. A friend there commented that they thought that there had been under reporting going on since there was such an abnormally low case load. So I forwarded the correspondence with the Country Director suggesting that INT may like to have a chat and explain the policies. Not exactly the best example of managing upwards, but there is a good reason why TTLs are advised to immediately report corruption: others in the Bank unfortunately have incentives to potentially downplay it.
I will close with a comment on corruption that was made to me by the Minister of Science and Technology from India at a dinner. He said that while corruption exists everywhere, what is most critical is how it impacts on what is done. He summarized it like this: in China there is a $100 million road. All the contractors know that they will have to make some forms of payments to someone so they bid $106 million and build a $100 million road. In India under the same circumstances they all bid $100 million but build a $60 million road which fails in two years. He said in some countries corruption is a tax which increases the cost of what you get, but you still get what you need in the end. In others it comes off the bottom line and you don’t get what you pay for. I think he was spot on with this assessment.
Best World Bank Managers
I had a mixed relationship with my managers while at the Bank and I will be the first to acknowledge that I wasn’t the easiest staff member to have on the team. As one Transport Director said to me: “There are things I really hate about you but I have to put up with these to get the things that I need.” I’m sure that any of them reading this will be nodding their heads in agreement.
My view that I was not at the Bank to ‘play the game’ and thus manage upwards played a part in this. Many of us had the view that as TTLs we were “voices of the poor”. I wanted to help the project beneficiaries as best that I could, and this sometimes created headaches for management. At the same time, I worked very hard and made many technical and other contributions so was of value to the sector. After my accident and traumatic brain injury I could no longer carry the load, so the ‘cost’ of employing me outweighed the benefits and this contributed to my early retirement. While I was disappointed I was also totally fine about it (to the point of indifference). I’ve learned that when one door closes in my life God opens another, and he has where I’ll be trying to help solve our housing crisis. So no hard feelings on this from my side!
With that context, there are a number of candidates including (alphabetically) Abhas Jha, Almud Weitz, Chas Feinstien, Henry Kerali, Motoo Konishi, and others. But there were two I want to particularly acknowledge.
John Roome was my Director when I started working in the Pacific. In fact, he made the position possible for me. Lis and I had decided that it was time to head home to New Zealand as she wanted to pursue her interests. It’s an unfortunate statistic that some 70% of marriages fail for World Bank staff in operations. While we weren’t on that trajectory, we had been almost seven years in D.C. and she had always wanted to run bed and breakfast.
My manager Henry Kerali was supportive of my telecommuting, but his Director wasn’t. In fact, I was told that were I to stay in D.C. I would be given a promotion to a ‘Lead’ specialist. Otherwise I’d have to leave the Bank. No issues from my side as my marriage was more important than my job so I was ready to leave to see what plans God had for me next. When news of this came to John’s attention he made me a proposition. The transport program in the Pacific was going to expand and he needed someone to help. If I would resign as international staff and become local staff in Sydney, spend one year in Sydney at my expense, I could then telecommute from New Zealand indefinitely. Originally the deal was that I would keep my current salary, but HR decided that this was a “lifestyle” choice and insisted on a pay cut. John was unable to move them on this and so I took a 30% pay cut and moved to Sydney, then New Zealand. This was my lifestyle “tax” but was worth it. John got his money’s worth as we moved beyond PNG, Samoa and Tonga. I did the first Bank transport projects in Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu and did a lot of work supporting the massive program expansion to some $1 billion.
But making it possible for me to telecommute from New Zealand is not why John is one of the top managers. It is because he had integrity and supported his staff. This came forward one time over the Chinese MA60 aircraft that was gifted to Tonga. A copy of a Russian Antonov, this aircraft had never had a ‘type certification’ which meant that it did not have the internationally acceptable safety certification. Since Tonga had adopted New Zealand’s civil aviation rules, which required such certification, it could not legally fly. New Zealand issued a travel warning, and things got very difficult politically for the Tongans. Rob Jauncy told me that at the Pacific Island Forum meetings the Bank had been asked to help by resolving the certification and so I was tasked to get on and sort it out. I gave some simple advice “Don’t do it. This will not end well.” However, since this had been requested of us it was decided by management that I needed to try and sort it out. Even after I had again strongly advised against it.
Fine. With the help of Dr. Charles Schumberger and my go to consultant Ian Greenwood we takled the challenge. We ‘cloaked’ the recommendations by doing an overall safety report on the transport sector in Tonga, which provided a useful platform for identifying opportunities in the sector for future projects across the board.
As I expected things did not go well. Our Regional Vice President was apparently called into a meeting with the Chinese Executive Director asking why the Bank was undermining China’s aviation sector. Charles and I were called to participate in a conference call which included an array of the most senior staff imaginable. Of course all guns were aimed at the rogue TTL who had done this work. When the story came out John stepped in and said that it was management who had overridden the team’s advice not to get involved and so it was management who needed to sort it out, not the team. It took a lot of integrity for John to do this, as I’ve seen this play out quite differently in similar scenarios at the Bank. So chapeau to John, and long may he continue to be in a leadership position the Bank. And the MA-60? It is still there and is currently unairworthy…
Michel Kerf was my manager in the Pacific and a stand out. I had met Michel when I first joined the Bank and he was doing analytical work under our then Director Christian Delvoie. When he took over the Pacific I wasn’t sure what to expect but he had developed into an example of the sort of manager that was all too rare in the Bank: personal and professional integrity along with having his team’s backs.
The Bank has a performance rating process wherein we provide feedback on our managers (and of course vice-versa). Every year Michel’s scores were (justifiably) off the scales in terms of high performance. I never saw scores like these with any other manager in the Bank. And yet when Michel discussed the assessments with staff (a requirement) he glossed over what we had ranked him well on, and always wanted to know what could he do to improve his performance and help us to do our jobs. At that point he was looking for what we in cycling call ‘marginal gains’ as he was doing so well, but he still wanted to do better.
Best Project Implementation Managers
This one is really easy for me!
When I started at the Bank working in China Wang Yanghong was in charge of the Project Management Unit (PMU) in Wuhan. He was an amazing man helping us to navigate and implement incredibly challenging projects. He was also visionary and saw the opportunities that the Bank could bring to help. When I approached him with the possibility of us doing the first work into addressing HIV/AIDS on projects, he was reticent but when he found that it was an issue and that Wuhan was home to one of the top HIV/AIDS researchers in China, he was fully supportive. Of course it didn’t hurt that he was a cyclist. I tell the story behind this photo later …
I think it also helped that I was part of a ‘new generation’ of TTLs for China. Along with Shomik Mehdiratta and John Scales, we were the second ‘wave’ of TTLs working on the transport sector. Without trying to be patronising, the first wave started working in China when it was finding its feet with international donors. As with a lot of other countries, they advised China on what needed to be done. By the time Shomik, John and I started, things had changed and China knew what it wanted to do. Our job was to help them doing it better. A major bone of contention was the requirement that all the Bank’s expressway projects include local roads. This was because it was seen as important to spread the development benefits. While this is true, the challenge was that local roads did not fall under the same jurisdiction as the expressways and so there was often a lot of issues that were institutionally hard to address. Mr. Wang told me these difficulties when we were preparing the Yiba project so I simply asked ‘what do you want to do’. Upon hearing ‘no local roads’ I said OK, fine with me. He was taken aback when I so readily agreed, but I saw our role as supporting the client, and why overly complicate an already challenging project?
Alex Bakhtamyan was the PMU manager for the Armenia Lifeline Road Improvement Project. Without him it would have been impossible for us to have done the project. He was the single most important success factor behind us being able to do so much in a short period of time. Alex was not only incredibly competent, he also really wanted to make a difference and help his country. Since this was our first transport project in Armenia—and we only had seven weeks to prepare it—without Alex’s support and guidance we could not have done it. Alex was later hired by the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg, and I had the pleasure of seeing him when I was cycling from Istanbul to Brussels. Ever the host, he still recalled my favourite dishes from Armenia! A great man, I’m honoured to have worked with him.
Last, but definitely not least, is Lasale Cocker. Lasale was the project manager on our ‘Tonga Transport Sector Consolidation Project’ and later became project manager for the ‘Pacific Aviation Investment Project’ (PAIP). When we started working together it took her some time to get used to my ‘streamlined’ way of doing things—such as not wanting formal letters but just send me an email and I’d respond. One funny time was when she was doing a selection for a consultant and the cost came in just slightly above the threshold. When I said no worries she said “Impossible. I’ve always been told that we had to start again …” When I got it approved she began to trust my judgement and that I could get things done. She later called me the “Rain Maker” for my ability to mobilize funds for our projects.
When we began working on the PAIP project Lasale’s Pacific Island background (she is half Australian and half Tongan) made a huge difference. She was able to bridge the cultural gap and understood the ‘Pacific Way’ which guides consensus decision making and avoids direct conflict wherever possible. She was also incredibly supportive of the various initiatives that myself and Cris Nunes came up with. For example, she worked with Annie Bishop on the first ‘Code of Conduct’ for preventing child abuse. With the assistance of Tatyana (another great procurement specialist) she helped lead the pilot testing of the Bank’s STEP procurement system and implement the open procurement efforts and others on the project.
Lasale along with Darin Cusack were the foundation for the success of the PAIP project. I’m grateful to have worked with both of them, and seen our relationships morph into a deep friendship. Below is Lasale in red at my 59th birthday party in Honiara.
Most Lasting Technical Contributions to the Bank’s Mission
I’ve been fortunate to do technical work in areas including aviation, highways, rural roads, and urban transport over a range of topics from asset management through social. There are three stand outs from the 17+ years which I consider to be my most important contributions. Ironically, two of them were done after my traumatic brain injury and while I was on disability leave!
When I first joined the Bank I worked with Sally Burningham in Cambodia. The AIDS epidemic was running rampant and she taught me how critical it was that we consider the implications of what we were doing on its transmission, as well as opportunities for us to mitigate the effects.
When I went to China and was working on preparing the Shiman Highway Project, the social assessment identified some 125 brothels along the proposed 100 km alignment. Coupled with the some 10,000 migrant workers we expected to be on the project, this rang alarm bells with me for the potential for HIV/AIDS transmission.
I contacted the Global HIV/AIDS program and secured a $US50,000 grant through the support of Janet Leno and others. With this we hired a local researcher who ran an amazing campaign. What stood out to me was the absence of any ‘standard’ program on how to most effectively deliver such a campaign to construction workers. With the help of Emily Dubin and Fei Deng, we secured some further grant funding and Emily led the work to produce a toolkit we called ‘The Road to Good Health’. We used this for many years and it provided an excellent platform for other efforts including our gender based violence training.
Addressing Gender Based Violence on Investment Projects
The Bank’s investment projects have the potential to induce child abuse and gender based violence (GBV) both by introducing new people to an area (e.g. the 10,000 migrant workers for the Shiman highway project), or by exacerbating the existing underlying situation by changing the power dynamics. I had been sensitized to this early on in my career by Sally Burningham and Genie Jensen, and so these were parts of most of my projects, along with things like occupational health and safety.
I was able to really refine the work in the Pacific, in no small measure due to the really strong aviation team led by Lasale and Darin.
Around 2015 the transport sector got into trouble in Uganda where there was a major problem with GBV. As we were being beaten up by senior management around our failures to adequately consider these risks on projects, I mentioned that across the Pacific we had quietly been implementing best practices in a number of areas. This thrust our team to the forefront and our work laid the foundation for the Bank’s response in these areas. I first worked with Quays Hamed on the ‘Labor Influx Guidance Note’. This was followed by working with Diana Arango, Nora Weisskopf, Deviyani Dixit and Keeyle Hanmer preparing the ‘Good Practice Note’ on how to address GBV in investment projects. Below is Nora, myself, Deviyani and Keelye in May 2018 after receiving an award for our work on GBV. Missing from here is Subha Ram from the Sydney office.
Soames Jobs had managed to get road safety included as part of the Bank’s new ‘Environmental and Social Framework’ which elevated its importance. The challenge was how to put forward a practical guide for considering road safety on the breadth of projects which it now applied to. We hired David Silcock, Eric Howard and Tony Bliss who did preparatory work but things never came together. With the help of Soames Job, Liljana Sekerinska, Dipan Bose, Said Dahdah, Veronica Raffo, and Alina F. Burlacu I managed to put together something which gave the practical guidance that TTLs could use to implement road safety. This, along with a complementary report on indicators for monitoring road safety, were my last two major contributions to the Bank. I’m grateful to have had the chance to end my career at the Bank with such important final contributions.
There is a saying about having a girl in every port. With me it was a bicycle … I often either travelled with a bicycle or else left them in our client countries for me to use on mission. Everyone on the team knew about me and bikes, so when I arrived at a World Bank retreat in Georgia below, nobody was surprised by my attire.
Cycling the Xiaoxiang Expressway in 2005 is top of the list of cycling memories. When the expressway was due to open Mr. Wang and I decided that to celebrate I would ride my bicycle for the 225 km length of the expressway, and he would accompany me. The idea of having an empty expressway to myself on a bicycle was impossible to refuse and, when we told others, they were also smitten with the idea. In the end, we had seven cyclists comprised of one foreigner; two from the World Bank’s Beijing office (Zhefu and Nathan), three from the Hubei Provincial Communications Department (HPCD) and one from the Provincial Development and Reform Commission (PDRC). We were also joined for the first two kilometres by my Anil Somani who succumbed to the enthusiasm and mounted my spare bicycle. Jean-Marie wisely declined. Below is Zhefu on his trusty stallion.
I’ve got the full story here. The video below was taken by the local television station and shows the joy of having a brand new expressway to oneself!
A totally different experience was cycling the Georgian Military Road which was constructed by Russian engineers starting in 1799, helping cement Russia’s annexation of Georgia in 1801. It was an incredible feat as they had to traverse the Caucasus mountains from Vladikavkaz in Russia to Tbilisi, and in doing so built a road which was better than most roads that existed at that time in Russia. I rode it a number of times and was taken with the incredible beauty of this rugged part of the Caucasus mountains. Here’s a photo on one of my trips. I’ve written a couple of other blogs on this road here and here. A magical place for any cyclist.
The other cycling story is also related to the Caucasus. With my spending a lot of time in Armenia and Georgia I came up with the perfect plan for how to handle the riding. I would start my mission in one country, and end in the second. I would leave my bike at the second country and the next mission would start there. That way I had my bike again for the mission! Sometimes when travelling between the countries I would leave very early in the morning and see how far I would get before the rest of the team caught up with me, packing my bike in the car and getting down to work. For someone who likes to ride like me this was just perfect!
I will close with a photo of Ollie on my Kiribati bicycle. He thought it was a good idea to ride it through the lagoon. For some reason it was never quite the same afterwards …
This don’t fit into the above but on a project in Georgia we uncovered a bronze age burial ground, which included a chariot. There were seals from Mesopotamia which was the first time they had any record of trade between Georgia and Mesopotamia from that period.
One of our most important innovations for the Pacific was introducing geocell pavements. Alex Visser from South Africa and Asif Faiz helped lead this work with Ollie Whalley’s support. These are an ideal solution for roads in many Pacific Islands as they are easy to build and very climate resilient. You roll out the base, put in edging, spread out a plastic mat and fill with concrete. We first built these in Kiribati and then in Tuvalu. They worked really well and hopefully they will continue to be built.
Asif also helped introduce Otta Seal pavements to the Pacific. Tonga had a shortage of good aggregate and so the reseals they were building were not lasting as long as they should have. We were also in the process of establishing a local contracting industry who didn’t have much experience. Otta seals are more ‘forgiving’ and you can use lower quality aggregate and still get a well performing pavement. This was a really successful innovation for Tonga.
The Pacific program afforded us the opportunity to innovate, in part because we had so many practical challenges to address. For example, in Kiribati there was no aggregate and they practiced ‘beach mining’ which was as environmentally nasty as it sounds. There was a plan to have a dredge to take materials from the lagoon, but this had its own challenges. I was fortunate to have the support of Panneer Selvam, our Regional Safeguards Advisor, who worked with Anil to find practical ways to address the environmental challenges of remote Pacific island countries. Here he is on a visit to Kiribati inspecting seawalls with Sofia and Ollie. I benefitted a lot from Panneer’s advice and guidance.
Besides bicycling I also did a lot of other sport. There was the time when I was on mission in China and popped over to Korea for the weekend to do my first Ironman triathlon. Or when I was in Romania for a conference and noticed that there was the Athens Classic Marathon on the following weekend. But two memories in particular stay with me…
I was in Shiyan China on mission and went out for a run from the hotel. I have a good sense of direction and knew that I was going in a loop and was confident that I would pick up a landmark for the area of the hotel. After about 12 km I didn’t find anything so decided to turn around. This made for a much longer run than planned. The next day I left and ran in the opposite direction to find that I had turned around only a couple of blocks from my hotel!
The most memorable was an early morning run in Vientienne Laos. It was April so the hot, pre-monsoon season. I left about 4:30 to get my run in before the sun came up and it got too hot. Silly boy I felt really good so ran further than I should have. On my return the sun was now up and it got very hot, very quickly. I recognized the signs of heat exhaustion but there was no traffic to grab a ride, nor places to shelter. So I said a prayer to God that I was in trouble and needed some help. Moments later I saw something white ahead of me on the side of the road. When I reached it what did I find but a pile of snow! Yes, it was 35 C+ and there was snow on the side of the road. I’m not making this up. I put it under my hat, under my arms, and was able to cool myself to the point where I could walk/run back to the hotel. Now, I will say that the snow was actually the freezer residue from a refrigerated truck which had done a clean out before starting the day. But it is also the only time in my career of working in the tropics that I found this and it did come immediately after my prayer!
My most memorable souvenir of my time at the Bank is having a Chinese bug (new species and genus) named after me: the ‘Superbotrechus Bennetti’.
Our Yiba Highway Project was traversing an area of karst caves. On Anil Somani’s advice we contacted Tony Whitten (whose life was unfortunately cut short when he was hit by a car while cycling), the Bank’s biodiversity specialist for East Asia, and very enthusiastic about caves.
We were fortunate that the project was with the Hubei Provincial Communications Department who were committed to minimizing the environmental impact of the project. Once Tony had explained the importance of cave biodiversity they agreed to undertake a survey with a local university as a baseline effort.
This survey identified a number of caves in the area, with different levels of human impact. We then narrowed our work down to caves within 1 km of the centreline of the road, and conducted further surveys and sampling of the cave biodiversity. This helped us to define specific mitigation measures to be taken in the project – such as putting in fencing to prevent workers accessing the caves, or changing the runoff from the road so that the caves would not be flooded. It was great to be working with the team and Tony got particularly excited when they discovered what was thought to be a new species of beetle.
The process for identifying a species is quite precise. Tony said some people spend years with a single sample. Glad I build roads. The samples were sent off to Guangzhou and from there they worked with specialists in France to classify the samples. Tony was pleased to tell me that: “the beautiful trechine carabid beetle from Duandongzi Cave, Yichang, is both a new genus and species and is named the Superbotrechus bennetti.” A full description of the beetle is in the paper here (it is in French).
When I commented to Tony that I wasn’t sure it was a complement to have a beetle named after me he responded: “Hey, I’ve had a ‘dull, transparent’ snail, a beetle with boggle eyes, a fish with strange genitals etc named after me so count yourself lucky!”.
So there we have it. Thanks to Anil, Tony, Wang Yanghong from the HPCD, the Bennett name will live forever. And I will take a blind beetle over a fish with strange genitals any day.
I celebrated the end of my active duty here in Golden Bay with my friend and ex-World Banker Agnieszka Grudzinska, and an appropriate celebratory cake.
As I said at the beginning, this was the best job in the world. I’m grateful that God gave me the opportunity to serve at the World Bank. It was personally and professionally incredibly rewarding, as some of these memories have hopefully showed. Thanks to everyone who made this such an incredible journey.
I’m very fortunate that my traumatic brain injury is not so bad that I’m dribbling or in a wheel chair. As long as I control the triggers (too much visual or noise stimulation, and too much stress) I manage quite well. This means that as I transition to my post-Bank career I’m still using the skills and experiences and able to contribute. My immediate project to help house the homeless in my local community (www.mygbhousing.info). And, of course, ride my bike