Nothing beats the satisfaction of seeing change on the ground, except maybe for the pride and satisfaction of helping ADB during one of its most pivotal moments, says Teresa Yabut.
Making a dent in ADB history
2017 has been a year of celebration for ADB’s half-a-century’s existence; while for Teresa Yabut, it has been a time to reflect on a job that she loves and, in her own words, “an institution that has been good to me”.
The portfolio management officer for the East Asia Urban and Social Sectors Division (EASS) has worked for ADB for nearly 30 years, or more than half of the bank’s lifespan. A certified public accountant, Teresa, or Tess to many, first heard of ADB at the Divine Word College of Legazpi, a city in the southern end of Luzon, Philippines, where she graduated with a degree in Commerce major in Accounting. Even then, she already had the impression that ADB’s work was “noble” and that it would be a dream to join the organization.
Sure enough, she made her way in, when ADB was still located at Roxas Boulevard in Manila. And ever since she has witnessed numerous changes throughout the decades and as she herself moved across different departments: the Controller’s Department, East and Central Asia Regional Department (ECRD) (the two regions were still combined), the Office of the President (OPR), Strategy and Policy Department (SPD), and currently with the East Asia Department.
The convivial Tess, who is a mother of two grown children and a natural leader (from being a student council chair and editor of her college paper to former head of the ADB employees' cooperative and vice chair of the staff council), recounts several uncanny stories from the past, including a time when ADB financed beer production and when women working was still unheard of in Central Asia. She also shares hesitantly, careful not to sound boastful, how she helped start four resident missions in Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, and Viet Nam. In Viet Nam, for example, it was only her and the country director at the beginning and she had to manage recruitment of local staff as well the finances and admin tasks of the office.
Now that she is with EASS, her responsibilities are still every bit as challenging. They have a small team yet they handle the largest member country, which also happens to be a big driver of urban development in the world. She admits that it can get exhausting, what with her age creeping up on her, she says; but she also knows that she doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
Read on to discover the most memorable part of her “exciting and fulfilling life in ADB”:
“There are not a lot of us who can say has experienced the growth of ADB in most of its stages, which were so varied. It's like you're a part of history—even the President who started it is no longer here.”
Potfolio Management Officer
How would you describe your work as a portfolio management officer?
Tess: The most important aspect of portfolio management is whether we will be able to meet the contract awards and disbursement, meaning if all the packages under the loan will be approved and implemented as per procurement plan, and the disbursement schedules are met. That’s supposed to be the main work of the project administration unit, apart from tracking problems in the implementation of projects. Andrew McIntyre heads the unit and there are two national staff and three project analysts, one of whom is from the front office. Mr. Sangay Penjor, our director, provides overall guidance.
This year, the loan portfolio we have processed amounted to $951.35 million – that’s 40% of the entire department approvals. And with a small team it can get very difficult, because apart from portfolio management, I also support in processing projects. If it’s my project I join the fact-finding mission, but if it’s not my project I assist in the quality control of the documents. This is as far as consistency and correctness of figures go, as well as if the observations noted are right. Quality control is basically to reduce comments during inter-departmental review, management review meeting, and for board approval. Because, for example, it doesn’t look good if we submit a document and the cost tables and other figures are erroneous and inconsistent with the rest of the documents, right? A director can get turned off immediately, even without reading the whole document. And on top of all these, I still have to implement projects because like I said, we lack analysts.
That’s a heavy load. When and why did you move to Urban?
Tess: When I transferred back to operations in 2014, I was thinking I would just be handling one loan and one TA so I can still stay in the loop in changes of guidelines, etc. But because of lack of analysts I had to pitch in and help. And it’s not only myself; it’s all of us. Right now I’m handling four loan projects for implementation, although two of those are not yet effective. It’s just that unlike before we now have to do a lot of advanced actions, meaning even before approval we have to start procurement so as to minimize project delays. But don’t get me wrong. I love what I do. I get this high seeing what our projects accomplish on the ground.
I moved from SPD since I was there for four years already, and at that time, there was a high turnover due to the tax issue. I was thinking whether I should go back to operations, because if I didn’t go back then all the vacancies were bound to get filled and I would lose my chance of ever going back. I’ve been away for too long. It was about eight years since my work for operations at ECRD. Also, I was thinking it would be better for me once I retire because then I could be a consultant supporting a project. There are more possibilities for what to do rather than if my last role had been at the front office. Funny though, my friend said, ‘Tess, isn’t it when you get older you want to do lighter things? You’re doing the reverse!’ But for me, I wanted the challenge.
I think you can really see and feel what the bank is doing when you’re in operations. When you’re in other departments – no offense meant – it’s theoretical or it’s more macro like when I was in SPD and OPR. Whereas if you’re on the ground, looking at the happy faces of people, and even if they might have complaints, still you’re changing their economic and living conditions, and it feels good. There’s this sense of fulfillment.
Tell us more about your work with the Office of the President. What was that like?
Tess: I was in OPR right after President Tadao Chino launched the reform agenda in 2004, this massive reform of all aspects of ADB operations. The bank realized then that the outside world was changing and ADB would become irrelevant if it didn’t change internally. There was a need for close coordination between departments, like for example, the Capacity group wasn’t discussing with Governance, so they were combined into Governance and Capacity Development. So those things, harmonizing different turfs, as well as improving processes, so to speak. In simplistic terms, it was about the changing environment outside and how ADB would die if it didn’t adapt. As a result, there was this massive agenda spanning 19 initiatives. My work was to monitor the actions being undertaken for each initiative and prepare a report for discussion. This was also the time when the role of managing director general was created. I was lucky to have worked with two managing directors general: Mr. Young-Hoi Lee and Mr. Rajat Nag.
You know, with everything that I have gone through, working for the reform agenda might be the most memorable, because we basically defined the direction of the bank. There are not a lot of us who can say has experienced the growth of ADB in most of its stages, which were so varied. It’s like you’re a part of history—even the President who started it is no longer here.
Given your experience, how has ADB evolved through the years? What remains to be done?
Tess: ADB is totally different. I’ve seen so many changes having been here for so long. Overall I can say it has been good. From the lending perspective, there has been an enormous change because of the reform agenda. The lending went up dramatically. And not only that, our relationship with DMCs [developing member countries] has improved for the better with closer coordination.
Of course, as with any institution, there are still many things to be refined. This includes focusing on staff and benefits. As an old staff, I don’t think they’ll be able to retain the best staff if they don’t look at compensation and benefits. These affect employee turnovers or the longevity of staff, which then affects the work being done because for an institution operating on important guidelines, it becomes inefficient when people are new and not familiar with the guidelines. Instead of focusing on procurement for project implementation, you have to constantly train people on what to do. There must be some coherent and more effective way of addressing some of these issues. I’m not an HR person, and I don’t know if this is possible, but there must also be some way to be flexible in staffing so that when a division suddenly needs more staff, there can be a fast way to pull another person from a different division.
How about you, do you still have plans or goals you want to achieve in ADB?
Tess: You know how in East Asia we’re focusing on elderly care? We’re spearheading this for the social and urban sectors so that cities are more attuned to the needs of the aging population. And well it’s funny because we have this running joke among my friends here who have already retired to start an elderly facility—but just for ADB retirees! But seriously, maybe this is something I can do in my mother’s hometown in Ticao, one of main islands of the province of Masbate. There’s no facility or help of any sort for the elderly there, save for the mandatory seniors’ citizen card benefit. Did you know that one of the main problems of the elderly is loneliness? They feel forgotten. So this is something I think about, although my ideas keep changing. Originally I was thinking of microfinance or starting a cooperative for coco farmers. Let’s see what I end up doing.