New country director for Bhutan and Afghanistan based in Kabul

World Bank representative to Bhutan Mark LaPrairie. In the backdrop is a portrait of one of his students from the east whom he taught in the late 80s as a teacher

WB representative to Bhutan reflects on his experience and talks about the new Country Director

The World Bank (WB) has appointed a new Country Director (CD) for Bhutan and Afghanistan, Mr. Robert J Saum who already assumed office in Kabul on 1st May, WB representative to Bhutan Mark LaPrairie told The Bhutanese in an exclusive interview.

It has been just more than a year since the first WB country office in Bhutan came into existence along with the first WB representative Mark LaPrairie in March 2011, following applause by top bank leaders for Bhutan’s progress.

Mark said the appointment of the new CD will neither lead to downgrading or expansion of the country office in Bhutan.

Saum, 49, who grew up in a 4-H family in Auglaize County in northwest Ohio has a record of having worked for several nonprofit organizations like in Pakistan and with Afghan refugees.

Saum visited Bhutan about a decade ago after he joined the WB in 1998. His field was accountability and public sector financial management in south Asia. He spent a year in the World Bank’s New Delhi office. He also worked on a few projects of Bhutan for the WB.

Saum will make his first visit to Bhutan as a CD in July this year. “The WB’s Afghanistan programme is really large, nearly USD 45bn, so he is first there on familiarization”, Mark said.

Mark also shared that Saum used to be the finance management specialist in south Asia region and he did work on a few projects in Bhutan.

After Washington, Kabul has been identified as the location of the country office for obvious reasons. Mark said the decision was taken after the fall of the Taliban. “Given the large programmes that were coming for Afghanistan, it was sensible to have the CD’s office in Kabul”.

Saum also participated in one of the World Bank’s first visits to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2002.

Earlier, the CD was responsible for programmes in Bhutan and Maldives as well before Maldives was placed under the country office based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

“So it’s jus a way of rationalizing both geographically and in terms of the size of the programme to divide up the responsibilities for the CDs”, Mark said.

Bhutan became a member of the WB in 1981 and joined the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the WB’s private sector development arm, in December 2003. Through the International Development Association (IDA), the Bank began its program of assistance in the early 1980s.

Asked about Bhutan’s progress since he took responsibility, Mark said, “Bhutan is a top performer in the eyes of the WB and gets the highest score from South-Asia in Country Performance in Institutional Assessment (CIPA) rating.”

He also said that the increased number of automobiles and littering was something he was not happy with.

Referring to the current Rupee crunch, he said that the Rupee is a foreign currency which needs to be earned unlike the Nu which can be printed and controlled. “I think it’s a difficult period because it requires some adjustments”, he added.

He said, Bhutan has a very small financing envelope of about USD 45mn every three years. “It is a sovereign state, it is a member of the WB and it is regarded very highly in the WB as one of the high performing countries that we like to use as an example to other countries we work with”, he said.

Mark first came to Bhutan in the late 80s as a Canadian volunteer teacher under World University Service with Canada (WUSC). “I taught in the east in Wamrong and Yurung which led me first to learn about Bhutanese culture and society  at the age of 23,” he said.

He was back in 1997 with UNICEF as the education program officer before moving to Washington to join the WB where he worked on the Bhutan programme.

There is a possibility that Mark will be leaving Bhutan in the next few months. “The WB is all over the world and is a big organization it expects its staff to move around. At some point, I will go back to another country or Washington but that doesn’t mean I will break my own personal connection with Bhutan”, he said.

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