Labeled as an economist, Akira Matsunaga is anything but. He is a service provider first and foremost, steadfast in supporting governments, and lo and behold, an erstwhile dancer.
Mastering the art of service
Prior to the interview, Akira Matsunaga was having physical therapy when he got the call.
It was his client in Bangladesh, telling him about a critical update on the details of their ongoing project. Never mind the pain in his lower back, the call was better. “I always say I’m always open because our project is a water supply project. We try to deliver water supply in Dhaka 24 by 7, so that means we need to work 24 by 7. I need to be available for our clients.”
Such zeal permeated the rest of the interview. Yet this economist from the South Asia Urban and Water Division only joined ADB in 2015. Before the bank, Akira had been working with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for more than 20 years, witnessing its changes from when it was still the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF) and later the Japan Bank International Cooperation. He became an officer for OECF after graduating from Hitotsubashi University, a renowned university in Japan with many notable graduates, such as the country’s first ambassador to the United Nations.
Akira, while pursuing his career, also attained two master’s degrees on development policy and administration in the University of Wisconsin, and on judicial science at Stanford University. He said he likes to understand how institutions work and coexist and how people make their decisions and act on it. It’s a complex and nuanced interest, which contrasts (though indirectly relates) from his singular focus of serving developing countries. This resolve, especially to become better at it, enabled him to stay with JICA for the length that he has, albeit with three secondments to the Ministry of Finance (Japan), Embassy of Japan to Myanmar, and to his alma mater.
Nowadays, most of his time is allotted for his projects in Bangladesh and India. He is leading two water supply projects in Dhaka, one of which will ensure that the gains from a previous ADB project – low-level nonrevenue water – will be sustained, and another which will include the construction of a water treatment plant. In India, he’s handling the Karnataka Integrated Urban Water Management Investment Program.
In any spare time left, if he’s not in the clinic for more physical therapy, Akira likes to dance. He revealed that most colleagues in his division would know and associate him with dancing, having participated in several Christmas performance competitions within their department. He used to be a member of a social dancing club back in his undergraduate days, he said. There was waltz, tango, quickstep, samba, or rhumba. Between his occasional dancing and catering to clients, Akira has certainly put a different spin on the phrase, ‘do the hustle’. Below is the rest of our conversation:
“Sometimes people misunderstand. They think this is our project, but this is absolutely wrong. This is not our project. That is their project and they are our clients. We are supporting them.”
South Asia Urban and Water Division
What made you transfer from JICA to ADB?
Akira: I wanted to work for a multilateral agency. Since I’ve been with JICA for more than 20 years, I felt I already knew a lot about bilateral agencies. I wanted to change because there are so many nationalities here in ADB, and I would like to work in such a diverse and competent environment. Also, I was interested in working with different countries and stakeholders to deepen relationships. This means I can enhance my expertise. But basically what I love is this job: development. That has not changed.
Why do you like development work?
Akira: I like social science. I’m not an engineer but I love political science, law, and economics. I really like political economy and institutions, especially how people make decisions and how they implement these decisions. This kind of dynamics is interesting for me.
In your over 20 years of experience, what would you consider a memorable point?
Akira: That would be my experience in Indonesia from 2011 to 2014. I was a senior representative at JICA and we had a big bilateral initiative called the Jakarta Metropolitan Priority Area, which consisted of a joint ministerial committee between the Indonesian and Japanese government. We had a master plan on how to develop the infrastructure in Jakarta metropolitan area because it was so congested. The area was very dense, so many people, and there was a big demand for infrastructure. We listed more than 40 projects that would be of service to Jakarta, including very important projects such as the Jakarta metro.
Back in the 1990s, they already had a plan to construct the metro, but the Asian Crisis happened. In the early 2000s, they resumed planning but the progress was so slow. It was only when I was there in Indonesia in 2011 that the governments agreed to go ahead with the metro. Now, it’s finally under construction. When I was still there though, and construction hadn’t started yet, more than 20 locals showed up in my office. They said their shops were located along what would be the elevated portion of the metro line. There would be noise and obstruction from construction. The shopkeepers were concerned that once it was constructed it would affect their business and lives. I remember how they all came into the office. Our office staff were very scared. But I received them and listened carefully to their concerns.
One week later, they had a rally and went to the building of the Indonesian government and the Japanese embassy. They didn’t go to our office, and it’s because I already received their concerns. So what I’d like to say is this, the project itself is quite difficult and we needed to coordinate with the government, but more importantly, we also need to listen to the local people. They are our ultimate clients.
You studied law and judicial science. But how difficult is handling disputes such as this?
Akira: If you are doing a very big infrastructure project, especially located in urban areas, there are always so many things to be done. That’s why I’m very happy to work for urban projects. Urban is exciting. However, we are development partners, so we have some limitations. The owner of the project is the government, and that means ADB is not the owner of the project. And as owner of the project, they know their own problems. Sometimes they just have a gap to solve these problems, like money. We support them by providing funding, or through other areas we can support. For example, they may not know how to establish a good institution to implement an infrastructure project. We can suggest what institution is necessary. Sometimes people misunderstand. They think this is our project, but this is absolutely wrong. This is not our project. That is their project and they are our clients. We are supporting them. We can bring the best available knowledge that we have learned from other countries to help them, and support to fit it in their context.
Are you now accustomed to working in South Asia?
Akira: My orientation is Southeast Asia, in Indonesia and Myanmar. I have been working with JICA for more than 20 years mainly for Southeast Asia. But I really enjoy working for South Asia. It's just dynamic. I am learning from my colleagues and counterparts how to find the optimal solutions among diversified views and keep the project on track. The sector I’m also involved in now is a little bit new for me — water. I’m familiar with urban, mainly transport and power. But I am happy to learn about water, as it is also an essential service for people's lives.
One common thing between water, transport, and power is the network. For example, power is delivered through the network, and transport itself is a network, and water is also network. Basically, we are doing the same things – deliver the service through a network. The only difference is water comes in to our bodies. That means we need to take care of sanitation. We should be careful in maintaining water quality since it affects our health.
Do you think about your future plans, whether in ADB or outside?
Akira: I don’t have any clear career vision. But I am now very comfortable working with my client. That is my style. I should be client-oriented as a professional, and I’d like to improve how to deliver quality service very quickly. I’d like to continue working for the urban sector, because it includes transportation, power, water, and that’s what I can contribute based on my experience. Urban is such an infinite space for me.
After I finish my ADB career, I will go back to Japan definitely. I have experience teaching at the university. That was a very amazing experience for me. I love teaching. I had several classes: Asia’s economic development, development economics, project management, etc. I also took my students to Indonesia for a study tour since Japanese students like to know what is happening on the ground, what is happening in emerging countries. They really enjoyed the discussion with the students of University of Indonesia. If I have a chance in the future after ADB, I’d like to go back to university and do this once more.