Monday January 3, 2005

World Bank's catalyst for change

By THAM AI MEI

World Bank education specialist Lee Ching Boon helps to shape the education policies of Third World countries.  

Fact File
Name: Lee Ching Boon
Age: 49
Hometown: Kuala Lumpur
Education: Bukit Bintang Girls School (1972); Victoria Institution (1974); Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur (1978); Harvard University, Massachusetts, United States (1984)
Occupation: Lead education specialist with World Bank
Current base: Washington DC, United States
Years abroad: 24
 

AS LEAD education specialist with the World Bank based in Washington DC, Lee Ching Boon’s job revolves around the more human aspect of economics such as education, health and human development.  

“I work with governments and other important stakeholders to improve schools in certain countries, mostly Third World. We work out loans to the health ministries of these countries so that they in turn can work on projects to strengthen the social safety net,” said Lee, 49, during an interview in Kuala Lumpur when she was back for a holiday recently.  

“Education is just one of the few key areas I work on. The type of World Bank-financed operations that I’m involved in is multi-sectoral in nature. This isn’t about building schools only, but also ensuring that children have access to safe drinking water, proper sanitation facilities, one meal a day, and mothers who are illiterate have the opportunity to attend adult literacy classes.” 

There have been many unforgettable moments for this remarkable woman during the course of her work.  

Besides education, World Bank-financed operations include projects that ensure children have access to safe drinking water, proper sanitation and at least a meal a day.
One of her recent projects involved working out a primary education loan to Nepal. This is a nation under conflict due to the insurgency by Maoist rebels, and almost 70% of the country is inaccessible to the government 

“I remember this incredible field trip to a couple of schools in a high security area which was occupied by the insurgents just a few weeks earlier. The roof of the school building was riddled with bullet holes but despite this horrific experience, the folks brought their kids back to the classrooms.  

“I met up with the school management committee of the badly damaged school, and was really encouraged by the optimism shown by the parents and the kids. Here we are talking about children who will have minimal opportunity of reaching secondary education (only about 10% go on to secondary school), and yet some of the kids I spoke to aspired to go to Japan to attend college!” recalled Lee. 

It has been a long journey for Lee who hails from Kuala Lumpur. Lee, who holds a PhD in Education from Harvard University in Massachusetts, is a former student of Bukit Bintang Girls School. She continued her studies at Victoria’s Institution where she sat for her Higher School Certificate. It was here that she met her husband Fong Thian Hooi. After graduating from Universiti Malaya, she had a short teaching stint at a secondary school.  

“It was during my teaching years that I realised the importance of implementing good policies in the education system. I became very interested in the policy side of things, as I believe in the human capital theory. There is a lot of literature showing that many countries would be better off investing in primary education, as the socio-economic returns are higher. I figured I wanted to combine my economic background with my practical training as a teacher,” said Lee. 

At Harvard, she did a dissertation on returns from human capital investments, which was a relatively new field of study at that time. 

“When I applied for the World Bank’s Young Professional Programme, I was apprehensive because they usually hire mainstream economists,” she said.  

Lee managed to clinch a place, and her husband (boyfriend then) decided to pack up his business to pursue a Masters degree in the United States in order to be with her. Currently, Fong is a freelance web designer.  

In 1991, Lee was posted to the World Bank office in China to work on social security reforms and pension funding. It was in Beijing that she met the resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in China, Arthur Holcombe. He was so impressed with her that he asked her to become his personal assistant. 

Thanks to the World Bank's efforts in implementing education policies in most Third World countries, millions of children will have a brighter future. Education is one of the key areas Lee Ching Boon is involved in.
“He is such a wonderful person. He set up the Tibetan Poverty Fund, a non-governmental organisation,” enthused Lee, clearly still awed by Holcombe. Her work as his personal assistant in the subsequent 3½ years included representing the UNDP, working on World Trade Organisation issues, and dealing with China’s Ministry of External Trade.  

After Lee’s secondment with the UNDP, she returned to the World Bank to resume her work as project team leader in the East Asia and Pacific Region. During this period, her work focused on social safety net operations in countries (including Malaysia) which were affected by the financial crisis in the late 1990s. 

On the personal front, Lee and her family love Malaysian food, and often frequent a certain restaurant in Washington, which she says serves great Penang food. She also makes it a point to send her two girls, aged 16 and 10, for Mandarin lessons.  

“I have been very fortunate because I get to come back pretty often due to the nature of my work. However, my work scope has changed, and these days I have less opportunity to travel to this part of the world,” she lamented. Lee now holds the post of sector leader for the 16 countries in the Caribbean, looking after human development issues in the region. 

“Without growth and jobs, there won’t be much hope for the large numbers of youths-at-risk in the region,” she said gravely. “Unemployment is currently more than 30% among those in the15-25 age group, and crime and violence are on the rise.  

“I manage a team that is helping governments on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, reducing the dropout rate of secondary school students, making education more relevant to the needs of the labour market, strengthening safety nets for the poor, while looking for ways to keep youth off the streets and channel them to productive activities.” 

As for the big picture, Lee has many hopes and dreams for the world’s education. 

“While low income countries still have a long way to go in providing basic and primary education, middle income countries must seek ways to improve the quality and relevance of education to the world of work.  

“Life-long learning should eventually be the aim of all countries as the labour force has to keep up with new demands for skills,” Lee added. 



VI Interact Club, 1974

Club President Lee Ching Boon, (seated extreme left) with advisory master
Daniel Chan, Headmaster Victor Gopal and Club Vice-President Chin Ai Ling.