Views from the Field No. 7 – East Asia
Posted by Suhas Joshi
RA: What is your experience of working as a PFM advisor around the world?
SJ: Tolstoy starts Anna Karenina with the sentence “Happy families are all alike, unhappy families are unhappy in their own way”. In the same way countries are all alike in their basic PFM requirements and issues but each is unique in its own problems and issues. I have had the privilege of having sat on both sides of the donor table - in India I used to deal with bilateral aid to India and now, for 13 years with the Fund, I have delivered aid to Russia, West African states such as Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gambia, then 15 Pacific Island countries, and now to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Maldives.
In his Theban plays Sophocles says “There is nothing new under the sun”. In the same vein, I see in all the countries where I have worked certain fundamental PFM issues that remain the same. Yet diversity in location, size and capacity makes each country and its problems different. This creates a challenge for practitioners at the implementation stage - indeed a philosophical one. Often we tend to believe that we, as TA providers, are guiding the reform process. But, as the Gita tells us, we are not the “doers” – we are at best catalysts in the reform process. As I saw from my experience in India, the main “doers” of reform are the ministers and government officials in any country. They are busy performing the routine functions of government about 90% of their time, failing which they will lose their jobs. This leaves about 10% of their time to engage in the reform process. If government officials have to implement several reforms at the same time, their resources are further stretched, resulting in slow implementation. Factor in a bureaucracy that is often either de-motivated or ambivalent, then none of our efforts will bear fruit!
In sum, we need to be realistic in our hopes and recognize that unless we have a high level champion to provide motivation and guidance, the reform process will be slower than expected, if indeed it will be implemented at all. Reform needs to be combined with sustainable capacity development so that the “doers” can do things themselves, and correctly, while we support them in meaningful ways.
RA: What do you see as the main priorities and challenges of reforming PFM in East Asia?
SJ: The region comprises countries at different levels of development and with vastly differing capacities. A major challenge is FAD’s long absence from working in many of these countries, and the fact that some of them are “tigers” that challenge you at every step before they accept your advice. Building the trust and confidence of counterparts can be difficult. Another challenge has been the language barrier. English is well spoken and understood in some of the countries but not so in others and this presents its own difficulties – “lost in translation” is a major occupational hazard here. Access to PFM literature is another challenge. I have started to mitigate this in a small way by starting a quarterly PFM Newsletter in Cambodia which has over 80 subscribers. We have used the Newsletter to disseminate PFM Technical Notes and Manuals in Khmer.
So there are multi-faceted challenges in reforming PFM in the region. My job also requires a lot of travel. Since June 2011 I have completed 30 missions with four more missions planned before the end of this year. Travel is essential if I am to keep building the trust of counterparts, participate in capacity building events and deliver effective TA.
RA: How do you determine you annual work program in consultation with colleagues in Washington HQ?
SJ: Initially my work was not made easier by the lack of a pre-assignment HQ visit to meet colleagues in FAD and APD to understand the goals and priorities they attach to my role. Luckily I have always had excellent back stoppers and we have an equally excellent Res Rep in Cambodia who has made my life easier. At another level, I receive great support from HQ management. They have always understood my views and given me the flexibility and confidence I need to perform these difficult tasks over many years. Participating in some HQ-led missions has been a very useful experience. Now that we have initiated work in several countries my work program is demand-driven in part but coordinated closely with colleagues in FAD and APD.
RA: How do you collaborate with the World Bank, ADB and other donors working in East Asia? What opportunities and challenges does collaboration create?
SJ: I couldn’t be effective in my job without the help and support of colleagues from the World Bank and other donor organizations. In Cambodia, for instance, we have monthly donor partner meetings to coordinate our efforts. This collaboration creates a number of opportunities. In other countries, I am unable to attend such meetings on a regular basis, but I manage to meet most donors during my missions to exchange information and views, as well as to update them on our work, and this has worked well. Frequent email contact and phone calls also help.
I have worked in the PFM field for some time now and it was such a pleasure to catch up with old friends, reestablish bonds, and make new friends too. These relationships helped me to settle in and identify productive work opportunities. We continue to work extremely well together.
The Bank has recently started a PFM network in the Region (PEMNA) with two communities of practice – one on Budget and the other on Treasury. I work closely with other donor and country colleagues to manage the Treasury CoP, and this should create opportunities to bring about improvements in PFM processes around the region.
RA: How would you assess the living conditions for you and your family? Do these bring any special benefits and challenges?
SJ: Cambodia is an excellent place to live in - people are extremely friendly and hospitable, and relationships, both working and social, are a pleasure. My family loves living here. As an Indian I find a number of synergies not just in Cambodia but the entire region. The religious philosophy is the same, as are many of the traditions, and even the alphabet of Hindi, Sanskrit, Lao and Khmer is the same (although the script is different). Several of the words in use here like “karyalaya” (office), “kapal” (forehead), “bong”(brother), “katibaddha” are Sanskrit words and this makes me feel quite at home. Indian culture is something I see everywhere- from Angkor Vat to Vientiane. Another point that is little appreciated is that when senior Buddhist monks meet for their international conferences the common language they use is either Sanskrit or Pali (the language Buddha preached in and in which a number of Buddhist texts are written). So maybe we are missing something here when we try to translate PFM texts in English!
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