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Article Article March 29th, 2016

Destination Kazakhstan: life on the development highway

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Working at the World Bank is no different from navigating any other big organisation...

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For systemic reforms there is only so much you can do from outside

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If at first you don’t succeed then it’s important to try again and look at another angle...

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“I joined the World Bank in March 1979 and graduated from it in December 2009,” says Shigeo Katsu, smiling. His use of education parlance is telling, reflecting both a down-to-earth personal style and his current position heading up Nazarbayev University in the Kazakhstani capital of Astana.

It seems a somewhat surprising place to find such a seasoned and senior development professional. After all, his 30 years at the Bank took him on something of a global tour - from West Africa to his native Japan and then China, followed by a return to Africa before finally concluding in the region of Eurasia. So, why Kazakhstan? And given that his knowledge of higher education was limited to delivering a few lectures, why opt for academia? Was he not tempted to stick with what he knew? Actually, no.

“Kazakhstan was one of my clients and, after a little cooling-off period, its government asked me to be an advisor, as well as serve as president of this new university,” he recalls. “The offer was a big surprise, but the government sold me on this being a totally different type of institution - one where academic freedom and autonomy were legally enshrined - and the aim was to create a truly world-class university. I talked to some colleagues and they said that I had always been telling them to step out of their comfort zone and now it was my turn. Am I out of my comfort zone? Yes, I still think I am, but I also learn something new every day - and at my age I think that's a real bonus!”

Banking on development

A consistent theme of Katsu's period at the World Bank is that comparatively little time was spent at the organisation's Washington, DC headquarters. His first decade of service began in Francophone West Africa and included a four-year stint heading up the Bank's office in Benin. “We sought to set in motion some fundamental reforms to guide the country towards a more market-based economy,” he explains. “We also helped facilitate the peaceful transition from a very authoritarian system to a more bottom-up democratic system. It was a very interesting time, but I was young - and when you're young, you're fearless.”

From there he went back to Japan for a couple of years to help the government set up a new lending facility for emerging markets and middle-income countries, and then he worked for three-and-a-half years on China in the early 1990s, just as it was opening up and entering its reform phase - “a lot of nitty-gritty stuff but rather important, nonetheless,” he says.

Africa then beckoned once again, this time the Côte d'Ivoire, where he ran the Bank's country programme. “This job focused heavily on how to deal with modernising industry,” he recounts. “Côte d'Ivoire is the biggest producer of cocoa in the world and it also had a pretty diversified agriculture. The task facing us was bringing in greater transparency for the whole system, modernising the agricultural production and trying to ensure more benefits flowed to the producers.”

And his third decade was spent in the so-called transition countries of Europe and central Asia - of the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, and so on. “The challenge here was the transition from an authoritarian central model to a more modern, market-oriented system, and by the end I was in charge of the Bank's Europe and Central Asia region as a whole. This was my final role there prior to moving to the university.”

Given the World Bank's sheer size and scale - 188 member countries and some 9,000 development professionals - it seems pertinent to ask whether or not it offers the flexibility and capability to get things done quickly. “Absolutely,” replies Katsu. “It's a very professional organisation,” he continues. “Sure, people argue all the time but it is also very creative, as staff come in with all kinds of interesting ideas. But I don't think it's that different from navigating any other big organisation. There is a strong sense of mission there and, in my time, without things like email, a country office felt a long way from Washington - so we could just get on with our work.”

Ideally placed...

From an improving business climate to rich natural resources and a geographic location bridging east and west, Kazakhstan is seemingly well placed for future growth and development. Since gaining independence in 1991, progress has been swift - it was one of the fastest growing countries in the world between 2000 and 2010. The country has sought to transition from a reliance on its extractive industries to a more market-based economy, one where bilateral economic ties with near neighbours such as China, Europe, Turkey and the Middle East can propel future advances.

“The long-term vision - as set out in the president's 2050 strategy - is for Kazakhstan to join the top 30 most developed countries in the world, not only on a per capita income basis but for also for quality of life,” says Katsu. “These are very high aspirations, but the creation of lots of new universities - including my own - is one means to this end. The vision also sets out how the country can take advantage of its unique location by becoming an indispensable facilitator of the trade in goods and services, and in doing so develop a highly sophisticated labour force and service-oriented economy.”

Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, economic headwinds in the form of plunging commodity and oil prices have hit the country hard - not what was anticipated when the grand plan was being formulated. “The good news is that the government is very conscious of this and is trying to tackle these modernisation reforms with a greater sense of urgency,” says Katsu. “But of course, you cannot reinvent an economy overnight - it takes time.”

He then embarks on a mini-tour of problems large and small, all of which threaten the future prosperity of his adopted home. “Our main market - China - is in the midst of economic rebalancing and our main partner - the EU - is fully occupied with its own issues like the refugee crisis and potential Brexit,” he says. “To the north we have Russia, which has its own problems as its economy is totally dependent on oil and gas and this leads to concerns about what it will do next.  Iran is re-engaging but it will take a long time, Turkey is now beset with its own instability, and Afghanistan continues to be security-challenged. So, you look around and it is an extremely challenging environment - the government here certainly has its hands full.”

Campus perspective

Katsu's time is not limited to matters academic - he continues to advise Kazakhstan's government on its plans and delivery progress - but it is clear that the university is his main focus. Of particular satisfaction has been the opportunity to engage with younger people, it transpires. “The job is not actually that different to what I was doing before in terms of capacity-building, but a bonus is I get to work with the students themselves,” he says. “I felt as if I had to commit fully - I couldn't just do it for a couple of years - as it is important for me to be there for the first graduation class, to set up a proper research system, and so on. There has been a lot to do.”

It is also clear that the role also offers him the chance to deploy insights gained from 30 years on the frontlines of development, in particular about how to achieve impact. “For systemic reforms affecting governance, modernisation or deep-seated economic changes there is only so much you can do from the outside,” he says. “You have to be able to develop a strong core that agrees with the proposal and takes ownership of it, so it becomes ‘their' idea. My time at the Bank also taught me that if at first you don't succeed then it's important to try again and look at another angle - there are always different ways to approach an issue. But at certain points you have to be courageous and put your foot down. And consistency is also important - you have to convey the same things to all the people.”

He goes on to reveal that he has worked such lessons and advice into his speeches to graduating students via his own bespoke version of an alphabet rhyme - A, B, C, D, E, H and R. Although it can't be found in any classroom textbook, his suggestions nonetheless possess significant educational resonance, as befits someone who has spent a lifetime leading from the front.

“I conclude each speech with this list,” he says. “A - be ambitious; B - believe in your dreams; C -commit yourselves to these dreams; D - do these dreams; E - enjoy it; H - be humble; and R - always show respect for others by treating them as you yourself would like to be treated. This is my core message for future generations as well as my own. It's worked for me - I want it to work for young people, too.”



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