The senior urban development specialist tells the story of opportunity: seeking it by migrating, seizing it to create change inside enemy lines, and sharing it as a legacy to her own parents’ work, a virtuous cycle.
Infiltrating the institution and instigating change
Born to a family dedicated to women's rights and public service, Anupma Jain did not need any prompting on the life she was to take.
Still, if it wasn’t clear, a New York Times article triggered a realization. It was March 1993 and she was then studying a double degree on economics and anthropology at Brandeis University in Waltham when she saw the news that the Indian government canceled a World Bank loan for the Sardar Sarovar Project. She was astounded. “How is that possible? What happened?” She asked.
Anupma was not unaware of the negative reputation funding institutions sometimes have, particularly the notion that their interventions result in more problems rather than the reverse. She knew at that moment that she wanted to work for one, to change it from the inside and prevent it from doing any alleged harm. If she desired positive impact, she had to be at the source of its maximum potential. “Follow the money, it has a voice,” she said.
And so mirroring what her parents had done before – migrating to the United States from India in a search for a better life – she decided to go to Asia and work for the Asian Development Bank in search of a purpose – to better the lives of others. Anupma joined ADB as a Young Professional soon after submitting her Ph.D. thesis at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Since then, she has been with ADB for nearly 14 years, mainly working in Southeast Asia and focusing on urban development, water supply and sanitation, health, and gender equity. Delivering her first loan project in Lao PDR is one of her proudest moments and which she considers “a turning point” in her career. “I had come from a social development background and had led a lot of project administration work. Creating a project concept, processing a loan, and being recognized by sector colleagues for corporatizing water utilities was huge—it was overwhelming and gratifying,” she shared.
In 2015, opportunity and curiosity propelled her to leave ADB and become the practice lead and senior director for gender and social inclusion at the Millennium Challenge Corporation in Washington, D.C. She wanted to embark on a new adventure, while also enjoy the benefit of being closer to her family. However by August 2017, she missed the satisfaction that came with working in water and urban development, and returned to ADB as a senior urban development specialist in the Pacific Department. Here below is an excerpt of our interview:
“Now that’s close to my heart: ensuring that any infrastructure we build or services we provide is affordable and accessible to women. It’s about giving women equal opportunities—just as I got growing up.”
Senior Urban Development Specialist,
Pacific Urban, Social Development & Public Management Division
Have you always wanted to work for development?
Anupma: I always knew that I wanted to go into development from a very young age, in part because I come from a family of development professionals. My father is a demographer working on reproductive health for an international nonprofit organization in the [United States], while my mother is a systems analyst who used to work in the private sector. Both are strong advocates for women’s rights and gender equality. Growing up I had seen the work they did and I was exposed to ‘Take your Daughter to Work’ days. At my father's office, I remember he and some of his colleagues used to set up these makeshift desks made from cardboard boxes in the corner of his room. My sister and I would have our own little office space. The best part was going to lunch with my parents in Manhattan during the work day. That was always a treat!
You’ve done a range of development work, from health to gender and resettlement. What issue or field is closest to your heart?
Anupma: Urban development. I see urban as a way of bringing a lot of interests together, kind of like what they talk about with livable cities. It’s about understanding the relationships people have with the space—where they live, where they work. Our job as urban development specialists is to understand that relationship within the broader context of the economy, the political climate, to see how we can then nurture it. If properly understood, it's such a unique opportunity to think outside the box for solutions to common urban problems. This is one of the reasons that I'm pursuing an executive masters program in cities at the LSE.
And it’s also about women. Now that’s close to my heart in terms of ensuring that any infrastructure we build or services we provide is affordable and accessible to women. It’s about giving women equal opportunities—just as I got growing up.
I know my interests have been very broad. I’ve always followed a track where there are not many women, like in math or when I was doing economics; but I’ve always been fortunate to have that opportunity where somebody kind of says, ‘You know what, we’ll give you a chance’. Now I look at it that way, that it’s my responsibility to make sure I can give that same opportunity to others. In fact, we had this really successful program in Lao PDR. We were able to train 26 high school female graduates in engineering and environmental sanitation, who are now working in the sector. It’s that kind of impact.
What are you working on now?
Anupma: I’m working on a number of urban development strategic frameworks and investment plans to support governments, which we hope will lead to a pipeline of projects. I’m working in Vanuatu, Palau, Solomon Islands—it’s absolutely amazing. I feel really fortunate. These are places that if one doesn’t work there, one would probably never be able to visit. For instance, I’ll be processing a project in Vanuatu on integrated urban improvements. We’re doing a concept paper now. In the Pacific, small budget goes a long way. You really see the impacts. That’s the exciting part about working here. It takes you back to development. It can be slow going at first, since you’re working on frameworks, but for me, I've always believed that the frameworks and investment strategies are your roadmap. If cities or towns don’t know where they want to go, then you’re never going to get there.
Tell us about this ethnic radio drama you’ve done for a couple of projects. How did that happen?
Anupma: It was in 2003 and I had taken it over from a former Mekong Department colleague, Paul Chang. It was in the [Greater Mekong Subregion], and it was basically a radio drama to communicate issues related to HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, migration… At that time it was all about the 3Cs: connectivity, competitiveness, and community. This was part of the community aspect.
From my own experience, being part of a second generation of Indians who moved to the US, it was always nice to hear Indian music or something in my own language on a radio. You feel like you’re being accepted. As an anthropologist, I was also interested in the ethnographic studies that go into developing these radio programs.
In Vanuatu, we’re looking at continuing support in social art using theater to communicate and create awareness on sanitation and hygiene. There’s a local group that does theater, fire dancing, acrobats, and things like that. We want to see how we could work with them further, since they’re already working with one of our existing projects.
That’s interesting. What or who inspires you?
Anupma: Because I’ve seen enough of the development cycle, I think it’s about making one person’s life better through our projects and making sure that negative effects are minimized. You always aim for a win-win situation and hope you don’t have a win-lose situation. It’s about changing the life of one person, just like when I was working in water supply—changing the life of one girl so she doesn’t have to go collect water and she can stay in school longer. That gives her a chance to progress further in her life.
Now as to who inspires me? I have to say my parents. I think going to the office to ‘Take your Daughter to Work’ day really exposed me to this kind of career, that you could do good, earn a pay check, and see the world at the same time. My mom especially has been so supportive throughout—always emphasizing the importance of education and good will.
Outside of work, what do you like to do that most people don’t know about?
Anupma: I run in marathons and half-marathons. I usually travel to the US to do that—silly I know. I’ve done a couple of half marathons in New York and Maryland, and the Marine Corps full marathon, and a few others. I also loved playing soccer (now I watch) and like painting. Believe it or not, I used to play the violin and was part of the university orchestra. Now I just enjoy drinking single malts. Being back in the Philippines for the second time around, I’m trying to see more of the country. You know, have better work-life balance!