INTERVIEW: Bassam RAMADAN
Kuwait Country Manager
MENA, The World Bank
Interview conducted by Moad Alrubaidi, Senior financial Management Specialist, Governance GP, MENA, The World Bank
Bassam Ramadan, a Lebanese national, joined the Bank in 1989 as a Young Professional. He started as an economist with the MENA regional Human Development Network (HDN), and then as a Senior Economist and Lead Operations Officer. He also worked in Africa from 2004 to 2008 as a Sector Leader for Human Development before he became Sector Manager for Social Protection and Labor in the HDN anchor in 2008. Since 2011, he has been based in Kuwait as the World Bank Country Manager for Kuwait.
CV MENA: How do you see the development of the Country Program in Kuwait?
BR: First, let me congratulate the MENA Financial Management team for taking on this important initiative to share knowledge and experience. The World Bank has had a strong relationship with Kuwait for decades. Kuwait is a contributing member to the World Bank and a key development partner. The Country Program in Kuwait has continued to grow over the years, which led to the opening of the World Bank Office in 2009. The Kuwait Reimbursable Advisory Services (RAS) Program is built around the following three main pillars which are aligned with the priority areas of the Five-Year Plan of the government of Kuwait.
Overall, the program in Kuwait is very active and has grown several fold over the past five years— and I expect that it will continue to grow. The program ranges from building institutions (for example, advising the recently established anti-corruption authority, building a new tax administration), to providing advice on reforming the education system and streamlining the business environment. The Bank Program is providing cutting-edge knowledge and policy advice, including the “how to” of implementing best practices in various sectors. In this context, the Bank is seen as an honest broker and a credible partner.
CV MENA: What do you think are the key challenges and opportunities in Kuwait?
BR: Kuwait is one of the early pioneers in the Gulf in many areas. Kuwait has one of the oldest universities in the region, an elected Parliament and active civil society, and one of the largest Sovereign Wealth Funds in the world. However, their economy like the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is overly dependent on oil, and would benefit from further economic diversification and streamlining of the government bureaucracy, which would also help the private sector to develop and grow further. In addition, the quality of the education system needs improvement. The public sector is the main employer of Kuwaiti nationals (90 percent of the labor force) who are offered generous benefit packages that further crowd out the private sector. The Bank RAS program in Kuwait is addressing many of these issues and is helping the government take the necessary policy reforms to correct these distortions. While the Program has been growing in size, the challenge now is to grow the program while maintaining quality and responsiveness. The government’s ability to make decisions in a timely manner is key, and that is why it is critical to strengthen the center of government and improve the decision-making mechanism that should accompany the implementation of the various reforms. On the Bank side, the challenges are: how to maintain the balance between responding to increased client demand for our services and selectivity; what the right mix of Bank staff and Consultants is for any given task; and how we can ensure that our interventions buy the best value for money for our clients and maximize impact on the ground. These are all real issues in any RAS program, and require careful evaluation before embarking on new tasks. They also require a continuous revision in the way we do business in these countries to keep up with their rapid pace of change.
CV MENA: What distinguishes the World Bank’s work in Kuwait?
BR: The Bank in Kuwait is seen as a credible and independent advisor and not as a consultant fulfilling specific terms of reference (TOR) — and there is a big difference. We provide our clients with global best practices, with the objective of offering the best integrated solutions to their development challenges. By doing so, we may sometimes provide advice that does not necessarily agree with certain vested interest groups, but it is our professional and moral obligation to provide it so that government can have the right options when making policy decisions. We also offer better quality advisory services at a cheaper cost than many of the well-known global consulting firms. In addition, the client respects the internal quality assurance mechanisms the Bank goes through in the preparation and implementation phases of the program. The RAS program is a growing area in most middle-income countries (MICs) across the Bank. In my opinion, more and more countries will request assistance through the Bank’s various RAS programs as their economies evolve and they become less dependent on our financial support. This in turn implies that greater attention by the World Bank should be given to this growing business line to ensure that we remain relevant and competitive.
(1) Improving public sector performance. Activities include supporting the Ministry of Finance in: modernizing the tax administration system; enhancing public financial management; streamlining outdated procurement and project cycle regulations and practices; and strengthening the policy, institutional, information and regulatory frameworks for better public land management.
(2) Enhancing economic diversification through private sector development. Activities include: supporting the recently established Small and Medium Enterprise Fund; supporting Kuwait’s Direct Investment Promotion Authority; helping the newly established Competition Protection Authority, and revamping the country’s insolvency laws.
(3) Enhancing human development. Key activities include a large program in the education sector, as well as health, labor markets, and social safety nets.