AIIB staff hopefuls share their views

By Lean Alfred Santos 18 January 2016

The Guomao skyline in Beijing. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has its headquarters in the Chinese capital, officially launched its operations on Jan. 16. Photo by: Jens Schott Knudsen / CC BY-NC

Career opportunities have opened left and right for development professionals in the Asia-Pacific region — and beyond — as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank recently concluded its second round of job postings following its successful launch of operations in late December.

Following a first round of recruitment in mid-November, as of Jan. 8, a total of 38 management and administrative positions are now closed for applications from potential staff, with the Beijing-based bank hoping to beef up personnel and hit the ground running. A bank representative shared that the past few months remain “a transitional period for us.”

“With the recent effectiveness of the AIIB Articles of Agreement, the Multilateral Interim Secretariat is phasing down as the bank itself begins to staff up and develop capacity in the communications area,” Nancy Cooke, a communications official at the world’s newest multilateral institution, told Devex.

The establishment of and launch of operations at the AIIB have been a major talking point in regional and global development discussions ever since the plan was announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping two years ago. Career opportunities too have stirred discussions — and interest — from development professionals within or formerly working with multilateral institutions including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, as well as from various other organizations and corporations.

This comes as a no surprise given that the AIIB is a new player on the international development landscape — and securing highly valued experts that boast long-term experience in the industry will surely help the institution go to toe-to-toe with the sector’s big players. Indeed, AIIB’s inaugural president, Jin Liqun, served several years at both the World Bank and the ADB and will undoubtedly harness the experience he gleaned as operations at the AIIB begin in earnest.

But what are the motivations, concerns and expectations of those who applied for the management and administrative positions opened up by AIIB so far in the past two months?

Devex talked to several job applicants to learn more about their thoughts on working for the world’s newest multilateral institution.

Motivations

On the surface at least, the establishment of the AIIB can be likened to opening a startup company. While there is an equal (or even greater) risk of failure, there is also room for significant growth and opportunities — something that bank applicants echo.

A Chinese development professional who applied for the communications specialist position told Devex, on condition of anonymity, that one of their biggest motivations was out of curiosity about the kind of opportunities that AIIB can open up to Chinese nationals.

“I always consider myself as an international development professional, so who doesn’t want to work at the center of it?” the source told Devex. “Working for AIIB is a path worth considering.”

The applicant, who currently works as a project manager, added that another opportunity AIIB is providing is a “fresh and new” model for development — long dictated by Western models — “based on China’s experience.”

The chance to be part of a new way of doing development — in a region where development is moving on in leaps and bounds — presents an attractive proposition.

Watts Humphrey, an American development executive with 25 years of private sector experience in energy, transportation, and finance, shared with Devex that it is in Asia, along with Africa, where real development challenges have to be faced head on. And these are areas where AIIB can play a vital role.

“The growing societies of Asia and Africa are global ground zero for the monumental ecological and infrastructure challenges we must surmount,” said Humphrey, who applied for the senior sector specialist for operations position.

Humphrey is hopeful that the bank will remain committed to its “lean, clean, and green” mandate — as a tool to maximize its impact and a way to dispel the long-held perceptions that traditional MDBs are highly bureaucratic and inefficient.

While there is no concrete information available, the compensation and benefits package will also likely play a strong part in the motivation of future applicants. The typical MDB pay grades for most staff are relatively higher than average local employees.

Daily operations

But in daily operations, does working for the AIIB mean you have to read and speak Mandarin?

Bank officials have stated in previous reports that the working language of the bank will be English, so as to retain an international flavor. And looking at the main requirements of the previous job vacancies in the bank — at least under the global recruitment category — it doesn’t specify a strict requirement for knowledge of Chinese language and culture.

But for Humphrey, who lived in China and elsewhere in Asia for a decade and who reads and speaks fluent Mandarin, a working knowledge of both Chinese language and culture can significantly help future staff in their work, as well as in navigating norms in dealing and negotiating in the local context.

“With China as the host ... I believe it will be very advantageous for senior operational staff to be familiar with China’s goals for the bank,” he said, highlighting the importance of understanding the “Chinese way of doing things.”

“I believe that understanding Chinese culture and the language will be an important benefit to prospective staff in their work, and, of course, in their daily living in Beijing as well.”

Challenges

While there are a lot of opportunities presented by the establishment of AIIB, there is also a fair amount of risk for potential applicants. One hopeful shared that there are still a lot of “wait-and-see” elements in terms of operations and the internal workings of the bank.

“[President] Jin said on many occasions that an institution was like a human being and needed to go to [the] gym to stay lean. I think right now, AIIB has too much attention,” the source said. “A person who attracts too much attention can get self-conscious and lose focus. How to balance the whole world’s expectations and get work done will be challenging.”

Just three weeks in, AIIB will remain a “potential” development game changer until it produces its first real-world results.

Some of these “game-changing” plans — which have their own risks — include a much simpler organizational structure, where the focus will mainly be on the faster and more efficient approval process of projects. There will also be a nonresident board of directors, as opposed to the traditional resident board of directors in institutions like the ADB, to fast-track the approval process and lessen operational costs.

There is also some talk about the bank looking to empower the president’s office to approve loans up to a certain ceiling amount (thought to be around $200 million to $300 million) without requiring board consultation. This is atop the much-debated details of the bank’s environmental and social safeguards framework — both of which are considered risky in some quarters without further details on regulatory processes and accountability mechanisms.

The U.S.-based development executive shared that one of the biggest challenges AIIB will have to face is in answering and embodying its reason for being: to help fill the development financing gap in the Asia-Pacific region.

“[One challenge] faced by AIIB is whether it will be able to provide critically needed development, and value-added expertise and advice,” he said. “The ability of AIIB to fill this important need and carve a niche for itself is a question of vision and execution.”

The AIIB applicant concluded that “AIIB is an opportunity to bring the best features together under one roof: financial strength, budget conscious, streamlined, rapid processes, and a focus on high-quality projects delivering important economic and social benefit.”

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About the author

Lean 2
Lean Alfred Santos@DevexLeanAS

Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.


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