The director general that almost never was
Amy Leung brims with hope for the future of cities and the Sustainable Development and Climate Change department, just as she never lost sight of getting into ADB after failed attempts.
“Eighteen years ago, I would have never thought I’d be a director.”
“I thought I wouldn’t last a year,” said Amy Leung, Director General of ADB’s Sustainable Development and Climate Change department (SDCC). A native of Hong Kong, China, Amy joined ADB in 1999 at the tail end of the Asian financial crisis. She wanted job security, and even more so, a chance to explore unknown countries. However, it wasn’t easy, as one might have expected for her. She applied a few times, never getting an interview, until she tried again. By this time, her resume included work experience in Indonesia, where she started a branch office for Townland, a Hong Kong-headquartered town-planning firm, and worked on land development projects. Her theory is this credential of having spent time in an ADB developing member country made the difference.
Her track record in ADB proves this wrong. She has climbed the ranks from urban development specialist to various director positions, such as director of the Southeast Asia Urban Development and Water division and deputy director general of the East Asia department, without intending to or thinking she could. So from the onset, the clincher through all this is her drive. Amy is an example of a rare breed in the bank. She combines moxie with pragmatism, a strong personality with an approachable nature. And she is one of the few who has a flair for management, which is critical in sustaining a big organization seeking to maintain its relevance. It is this set of abilities, along with a dedication to deliver, that has placed her in her current spot, heading a department that has much to offer, particularly for operations. Naturally, she has big plans.
In the course of this wide-ranging interview, she admits she was one of those who hardly believed in SDCC. However, six months into her role and she relents: “I have learned so much and I realize this department has so much potential.” Tied to how cities should be developed, Amy aspires for a more integrated, thematic approach in the work of SDCC.
“At one time, I was thinking that ADB should be the Asian Urban Development Bank. All the activities, all the economic growth, most of it is in the city.”
Director General, Sustainable Development
and Climate Change Department
Why did you want to join ADB?
DG Amy: Well, I was fascinated with the work ADB is doing. Working for Townland we tried to bid for some ADB projects and we actually won a project in Tuvalu. It was my first time to do a proposal for a technical assistance, so I went there and it was ‘oh my goodness’. [laughs]. It was a fascinating country. If I could work in ADB, I thought, I would be able to see many different countries, particularly developing countries that I probably won’t be visiting. That was really the reason. I did not know what development work was about, as opposed to land development and real estate. Preparing that proposal opened my eyes and I became interested.
And you’ve never looked back since.
DG Amy: The first year was really tough. The first year was ‘oh this is development work?’ It was very different from what I was used to. I was totally shocked with the culture, the work, and the environment.
I used to work for the Ontario government and the City of Scarborough, Metro Toronto, Ontario in Canada, and so I thought I was used to bureaucracy. I also did public sector projects in Hong Kong. When I came to Manila, I realized this was another aspect of bureaucracy that is quite different and stressful. I thought I wouldn’t last a year. Then of course one year passed, I was doing some technical assistance projects (TAs) and some loan processing and I thought I would just finish those. But before I knew it, three years had passed and I was regularized, and since I was regularized I thought I’d do one or two projects more. The projects were always very interesting. The work was intriguing. I learned a lot of things I wouldn’t have known had I gone back to land use planning. I had no idea people had no water, or no pipes, no taps, no toilets. It was really eye opening. Urban development is more than land use planning. It’s everything.
What’s a favorite experience in ADB?
DG Amy: The one country that really hit me was Uzbekistan. I didn’t even know there were countries called –stans. To me, it was mind-blowing to know there were a bunch of countries in that part of the world. I thought it was all Russia. It was like opening a new world and it just kept me going.
My first two loans were there in Uzbekistan. My project was mostly about water supply and sanitation. They had water systems in the country but it was totally dilapidated. This was in 2000. It was really, really interesting – and I didn’t even know much about water! I only knew how to plan land, right? So I had to learn very quickly. Thankfully I had a lot of good and kind consultants and colleagues. It was a crash course.
Wow, but looking at your ADB career it seems like you’re a water expert. What drew you to water?
DG Amy: I didn’t choose it. It was just the projects I was given—do this, do that. [Whispers] I only know how to turn on the tap! I found, however, that working here you get to do this amazing work. Everyday you have something new to learn. You learn about countries. You learn about sectors. You learn about different topics and issues. It’s like somebody is paying you to learn! Wow, this is fun. Of course, there are also frustrations, but that’s part of the job. At the end of the day, it’s really, really nice.
Eventually I realized what I enjoyed the most is managing—managing people and teams. To deliver. I cannot do things by myself. I have to have team members, people who are good at something to put things together. Number one in this place is to get a loan approved and the money to start working. After that, it’s making sure that the projects are implemented on time. What I’m interested in is being able to find the right people, put them in the right position or job, to bring us all together and deliver. It was switching from technical to managerial. I guess it’s related to planning, because as a town planner you need to see the entire picture of the city before you can plan. You cannot just plan a bit of it. If this bit doesn’t fit that bit, then the city will not work. So it’s putting all these pieces together, and then having different departments to play their different roles. I really find that managing people and teams to be so much fun.
How about cities? What is it intentional to work on cities?
DG Amy: You know I look back and analyze what exactly am I very good at and passionate about… I thought definitely cities. I love cities. But I wouldn’t call myself an urban planning expert. I just love cities because cities fascinate me. It changes all the time. You can have a vision, or more or less an idea of how it should be and how to get there, but along the way you have to make a lot of changes. I’m sure 10 or 20 years ago nobody talked about climate change. It was more of the environment, and now it’s a factor for many cities.
You established the concept of green cities in ADB. Now it’s livable cities. What remains to be overlooked in terms of urban challenges in Asia?
DG Amy: Green cities was just part of the operational plan. It was about being competitive, green, and inclusive. I think ‘competitive’ we are already doing okay. Every city is talking about economic growth. ‘Green’ at that time was a struggle, because when you rush to develop, you usually don’t prioritize the environment. So at that time, sustainability was – and continues to be – a big topic. I thought we should push green for the next wave of operation. Now I think we should look into ‘inclusive’, the social inclusion, and I think the term just shifted to being livable, and resilient—economically resilient, environmentally resilient, and socially resilient.
At one time, I was thinking that ADB should be the Asian Urban Development Bank. All the activities, all the economic growth, most of it is in the city. Of course when I mentioned that during a discussion, all the agricultural colleagues went: ‘this is totally wrong! What about agriculture?’ Sure, you need food to feed the people, but after that I thought I should be very careful about what I say [laughs].
My thinking was not that we should only focus on cities but it's that ADB can find a niche in building very sustainable, livable cities for our clients, where most of the change will happen. The challenge now is we still deal with the central government, so when it comes to the city level, which is one, two, or three levels down that of the country level, the capacity is different. Their ability to borrow is also quite different. The central government looks at the bigger view of the country. But to me, in most cases, the drivers of a country’s growth are cities.
Given your extensive experience, what advice or lessons do you have for development professionals who are still in the early or middle parts of their career?
DG Amy: My path may be very different from others. For me, you just take whatever opportunities that come along and make the best of it. Back then I didn’t even know if I could choose, and if so, what to choose? So don’t feel bad if you don’t get the high-profile project or loan. Just do your best. Your boss will always want someone who delivers on time rather than having a high-profile project by someone who doesn’t do a good job. And if one project doesn’t convince him or her, do another one. Sooner or later, you will be recognized.
Is there a goal or legacy you want to have as director of SDCC?
DG Amy: My hope for this department is it becomes a place that people perceive to have innovative ideas, a place that brings good practices to our colleagues and clients, a place that people can come to incubate, innovate, and make things happen. There are many incubation hubs outside of ADB and I hope we can do something like that in this department. Also I hope colleagues in operations would – if they have good ideas and can take a week or two weeks time – come here and we can get together some people to brainstorm and maybe create a pilot or concept and try to find some projects around the bank to experiment with. I also hope this department can be the department leading in identifying development trends and try to anticipate solutions for clients.
Now, I’m pushing for collaboration among sectors and groups. I think the future will not be single sector. In terms of supporting our clients, we have to think thematic. Of course this requires our operations colleagues to do this. For example, I would not just do urban, water, and sanitation, instead you look at the city and how they can develop, including helping them to get different forms of finance, and pulling together all the groups – finance, transport, urban, energy, and even social, the schools – to make it work. The other part is human development, the jobs. Jobs will be a big topic for many, many years for our clients. Instead of just doing education, health, or infrastructure, how can each project help to create skilled jobs? It’s using that more holistic, integrated approach to discuss with the government. At the end of the day, I know we cannot have a project that covers everything. It could still be single sector, but maybe plus a bit of something, or it could be done in phases over 10 to 15 years. Together, hopefully, the accumulated co-benefits will be bigger than one sector. This is what I hope this department can drive in the next five years.