My Day as A Diplomat in Washington DC

When the term networking is mentioned, the picture that comes in mind is a forum where everyone is trying to establish contact with players in their career or general interest. The real networking experience, coupled with negotiations and decision making proceedings were unveiled right in front of my eyes during the annual WB/IMF meeting at Washington DC. Having been invited by Prof. Verkooijen as a guest (you need an invitation to attend), I was armed with business cards and ready to converse with experts on my areas of interest. Right at the breakfast table, a gentleman who was instrumental in shaping the Paris Agreement in 2015 and works with Dr. Figueres was present. Introductions are quickly done as we need to leave before traffic builds up, right there is where networking begins, or should have begun if I realized it soon enough. My formed perception was that there would be time later in the day, after a cup of coffee to jump start me, when I would interact with Tom and express interest in the work he and the organization were doing. That was not so, as it was the last I saw of Tom as it a busy day and he was swamped in back to back meetings. The bitter lesson learnt, is to strike the iron when it’s hot. Many times I have battled with trying to get the right words or get the right time but that experience taught me to speak up as there will never be the right time or right words. Thus, I look forward to grabbing opportunities when they arise in the future, though I am hoping to get a second chance on meeting with Tom.

Fast forward, the day is a beehive of activities and everyone is briefly glancing on the program and dashing to the next meeting. To me, each meeting seems relevant and important but I have to choose as they run concurrently and I can only be in one place at a time. The first meeting we attend is “the disaster that never happened”, which my colleague Veerle writes about in her amazing blog that will be posted soon. Thereafter, we decide to follow the “from Billions to trillions” forum where development banks from across the globe meet and discuss to strengthen cooperation among Development Banks, Private Sector and Multilateral development organization. However, an email comes through and we get “treat of the day” pin entrance to a high level meeting which was open to pin holders. As confident pin bearers, we walked right to the front and I did not think the day would get any better at this point.

The high level meeting was on recovery and resilience in the Caribbean, after the Storm. I am sure we all remember the category 5 hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma which rocked the Caribbean in the last two months. With the World Bank’s president Dr. Jim Yong Kim chairing the meeting, the prime ministers of the affected regions recounted the massive loss and damage they had suffered. It is one thing reading newspapers or watching news on the television, but listening to the people affected speak builds emotions and a sense of empathy. The hurricanes became very real to me. Countries had suffered immense loses of up to -200 % of their GDP. Access to clean drinking water, sanitation, road, electricity among other basic amenities had been cut off. Businesses, both big and small had been reduced to nothing and the people’s economic activities were all gone.  A sombre mood filled the room, and one of the Banks Chief Executive Officer, Kristalina Georgieva who is co-chairing the meeting recounts “I am gravely concerned with the overall lack of focus on Adaptation. I understand big nations who are big emitters want to focus on mitigation, but these countries here, being affected are non- emitters and that is just wrong”. Judging by the loud silence in the room, most of us, if not all of us resonate with her words.

The meeting proceeds with the Bank advancing the affected countries funds to start rebuilding their lives back, in perhaps a more resilient way to weather any future storms. Following the proceedings, this was not the first meeting held after the hurricanes and it appears that some decisions were already made prior to this meeting. Like which countries get funds, which countries don’t, how much they get and when they get the funds. It really is true that some decisions or negotiations are not made in the board rooms but in informal settings. I felt the power of coalition as the meeting was dubbed to be address the Caribbean community (CARICOM) but only the interests of two countries, Antigua &Bermuda and Dominica Republic are addressed. I identify some flexibility by the World Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank in terms of disbursing the funds in a timely way and outside their business as usual protocols. I was, however, puzzled that the affected countries had previously taken 3 years to reinstate their original status. Many of us cannot comprehend 3 years without sewage, clean water, electricity, roads, airports or earning a living.

The complex geo political composition of the Caribbean Islands is a whole topic on its own. As it comprises Islands under European Countries like the Netherlands, France and Britain but the islands are not EU member states, thus cannot get funding from EU or the Regional Caribbean Development Bank whose membership is for ‘sovereign’ Caribbean Islands. The issue of jurisdiction is briefly mentioned mainly in opening statements but the overall message is all are willing to help in their own ways. Resilience and adaptation to Climate change cannot be overemphasized by each speaker. However, the speakers remind me of the simulations I have participated in, the statements are kept in a general level with positions being stated but there is no discussions on what the underlying interests are. The meeting goes on longer than anticipated but ends just in time for us catch Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade and Development, Lilianne Ploumen speaking in the Human Capital Summit.

Although I did not have the opportunity to listen to other speakers, I am impressed by how Lilianne articulates the issue of gender, family planning and development. She advocates for women empowerment through giving women POWER and not through giving them SEWING MACHINES. As a former micro credit officer, these words trigger my thought process and it’s a bullseye moment for me. The day is ending and dignitaries are trickling out of the massive World Bank buildings, maybe going to take a well-deserved rest, or to hold informal negotiations for tomorrow’s meetings or perhaps flying to another continent to hold other business meetings. I have to catch my 11 hours bus back to Boston, flights are expensive and trains are exorbitant, at least for a student they are. With a smile on my face, I feel inspired, motivated and reassured that there is a lot being done behind the scenes to ensure that issues of climate change and development are addressed. I am now more certain that I want to work in the field of climate change adaptation finance.

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