Jim Brumby: People come to Washington to make things happen

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Jim Brumby is very familiar with Washington DC, originally moving there in 1999 to work with the International Monetary Fund where he was up until 2007, when he moved to the World Bank. 

Now leading the World Bank department that focuses on public sector reform, Jim has been engaged on public management and economic reform at state, national and international levels for more than thirty years. As well as the World Bank, his resume includes tenures at the Victorian Treasury, the New Zealand Treasury and the OECD. He completed an MPA from Harvard University in 1991. 

Calling the US capital a “green city” and a “delightful place to live”, Jim returned to the World Bank HQ in Washington DC in 2015 after several years based in Indonesia as Lead Economist and Sector Manager, and has been based there since.

Interview by Molly O'Brien

Was living in Washington DC always on the cards for you, or did work take you there?

Work brought me to Washington DC in 1999, but I had studied in Cambridge, Massachusets in 1990-91 and my family had liked being stateside.

How did you find yourself working for the World Bank?

I got to know the World Bank well while working with the IMF during the period 1999-2007; and I liked the span of issues that it covered. A job was advertised that seemed to fit my profile well and I applied.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

There are two truly rewarding aspects – making a contribution to assist the development process in some of the world’s poorer and transition countries; and being given the opportunity to work with so many extremely capable, thoughtful and hard-working colleagues.

The most challenging?

There are two truly challenging aspects – one is the unevenness of the commitment at the country level to address policy and implementation issues, usually due to political factors; and two, navigating a large bureaucracy such as the World Bank Group always has its challenges. But I have been doing it in different contexts for more than 30 years, so, maybe I am getting better at it, or at least more patient with it.

The World Bank has two set goals to achieve by 2030 – end extreme poverty, and promote shared prosperity by fostering the income growth of the bottom 40% for every country. Are you on track?

We are on track. The world has made impressive strides in reducing extreme poverty over the last decades. Nearly 1.1 billion people have escaped extreme poverty since 1990. Despite this progress, the number of people living in extreme poverty globally remains unacceptably high, at nearly 800 million people. As of 2013, 10.7 percent of the global population lives below the poverty line of US$1.90 a day.

But, it’s also becoming even more difficult to reach those remaining in extreme poverty, who often live in fragile contexts and remote areas. And for those who have been able to move out of poverty, economic shocks, food insecurity and climate can change threaten their hard-won gains and force them back into poverty.

While there is no silver bullet to ending poverty and strategies to reach the poor need to be tailored to each country’s context, the fact that there has been such good progress tells us that a few things are working. Experience shows that in order to reduce poverty sustainably, countries need to grow their economies in an inclusive way that creates more and better jobs to enable people to rise out of poverty and stay out of poverty. They also need to invest in people, their health and education, their access to clean water, sanitation, and quality infrastructure, prioritising those who are excluded from these basic services, to ensure upward economic mobility within and across generations. And, they need to insure poor and vulnerable people against the shocks that can push them into (or deeper into) poverty, things such as severe weather, pandemics, food price variability, and economic crises.

What steps are being taken to achieve these goals?

The World Bank has a perspective on what needs to be done, and it has instruments to assist countries to undertake these actions.

The focus of the World Bank is on the following: one, promoting sustainable and inclusive economic growth, especially by helping countries create jobs and boost private investment in infrastructure; two, through investing in human capital, including early childhood development; equal opportunities in education, health, and training; and acquisition of job skills, areas that can make the biggest difference in countries’ ability to grow and compete over the long term; and three, by assisting countries to foster resilience to global shocks and threats that could roll back development gains, by helping countries develop resilient infrastructure, invest in disaster risk preparedness, prepare for and respond to pandemics, and cope with forced migration.

The World Bank Group deploys many instruments to support these goals, from funding projects that can have transformational impacts on communities, to collecting and analysing the critical data and evidence needed to target these programs to reach the poorest and most vulnerable, to helping governments create more inclusive, effective policies and institutions that can benefit entire populations and lay the groundwork for prosperity for future generations.

The World Bank also contributes to the global economic policy architecture. It uses its voice at G20 meetings, for instance, and in the international effort to strengthen the global tax system.

Over the past year or so the organisation has successfully raised additional funding for the world’s poorest countries through IDA18, and just this month announced a capital increase which will assist our ability to maintain programs in many transition economies

What was your experience like studying at Harvard? How long were you there, and did you have a particular highlight?

Harvard was a wonderful experience for my family. We developed friendships that we have had for life, and it really altered our life’s course.

Harvard really won me over through its level of resources, the commitment to excellence by its faculty, and by executing its goal for learning in a tolerant and responsible manner. That said, I thought for an international program, the Master of Public Administration could increase the weight given to learning from other countries.

There were many highlights, but I think the one most symptomatic illustrative of Harvard at its best was one night when three fellow students from Latin America sat together at a Forum event – from memory, one had played a senior role in a junta, one had been a member of the Sandinista administration and the other was to become President of his country. Their perspectives were certainly different, and the evening within the Forum evoked the commitment to tolerance and learning on a shared educational journey that makes Harvard great.

I was there for one year,  missing the Collingwood Premiership in 1990. Fortunately, I caught the next one in 2010!

What characteristics do you think are unique to Washington DC? What do you like most about living there?

Well, it sure isn’t Milwaukee! People come to Washington to make things happen, so there are always lots of things going on. The city itself has transformed a lot since we arrived in 1999 – it is a delightful place to live. It is a green city; Rock Creek Park is really an urban forest, where you can almost bump into deer only three kilometres from the White House. Each neighbourhood offers a distinctiveness. DC draws great performers, has frustratingly entertaining sports teams, and sensational food. The river has now been opened up, providing unfettered access for biking and running.

The World Bank is located a couple of blocks from the White House, so you are always aware of things emanating from that place. That is unique!

Would you say it’s more or less expat friendly compared to other east coast American cities like New York or Boston?

Hard to generalise, but the expat population is probably a larger share of total population in DC. The city has to be expat friendly. 

You spent a bit of time working in Indonesia also – how did that compare to living in DC or Australia?

Indonesia has a magical aspect, which is a bit different from DC and Australia. It is a country of contrasts – large land area but frightful congestion in Jakarta; massive skyscrapers sitting side by side with local kampungs, and Lamborghinis struggling over potholed roads. One day I flew from Jayapura in Papua back to Jakarta; the beauty of the archipelago unfolding below me was vast and stunning.

It is a young and optimistic population. Every Sunday morning, the main road in Jakarta would be closed to cars, and maybe a hundred thousand people would take to the street, and bike, run or walk together – peak time was usually about 7.00 am. You don’t see that in Melbourne or Washington. Indonesia’s cuisines are wonderful and very diverse, as long as some chilli (sambal) is involved!

The struggles of being a lower middle-income country present very differently from those in Washington or Melbourne.

The other notable aspect about living in Indonesia was that it provided a very different way to see Australia – maybe the best way to see your own country is from a neighbour.  It wasn’t always flattering.