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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Fresh woods, and pastures new

Not for the first time that night, the ringing of the telephone had shaken me from a deep sleep. A glance at the watch revealed that the little hand was somewhere around the 3 o’clock mark. Wearily, I lifted the phone off the cradle.
‘You want pretty Russian girls?’, a voice enquired.
‘No, thank you’, I mumbled, as my brain tried to connect with my mouth.
An incredulous voice then exclaimed, ‘You don’t need?’
Such were the delights of the Hotel Rossiya in Moscow.
As part of a project advising the Russian government on pension reform, we spent considerable time working there. Where you stayed set the tone for the visit. In Moscow, we were wary of staying in hotels where the daily room rate was more than the annual state pension, and we decided to stay in more mid-range hotels such as the Rossiya. Most were fine and all were a world away from the uniformity and blandness of the Hiltons of this world, although the low point with the Rossiya came when a colleague found a dead rat in his room, the implication being that even a rat found the place too dirty to survive.

The projects
I worked on a number of projects, usually funded by multilateral bodies such as the World Bank and the European Union, on pension and social security reform.
The beauty of these projects was two-fold for me: first, a chance to use some of my actuarial and economic skills in ‘wider fields’, and second and more important to see some new and interesting countries. The nature of the projects meant that visits were often two or three weeks in duration, allowing me to see and learn something about each place.
In Kyrgystan, because of the length of the visits, I was put up in an apartment. Apartments were great their size alone increased the probability of finding a decent enough reception within them to catch Saturday’s football results on BBC World Service. Local TV was generally a mystery. The only English I saw was mid-way through a poorly dubbed third-rate American movie they were showing on the national channel. Suddenly, there appeared the words, ‘This videotape is for private use and should not be copied. To report infringements, please call 1-800 STOP COPIES toll free’.
Kyrgystan is not only a dream score in Scrabble but a beautiful country to boot. I managed to go walking and skiing in the Tien Shan, part of the Himalayas. As on most of these projects, social life was good, and there was often a contingent of British and Irish consultants out for a few beers most evenings.

It is a cliché to say that the locals are friendly, but wherever we worked we received hospitality that I doubt would be provided in England. Much of my time took me to the former Soviet Union (FSU) where, admittedly, the nightly entertainment basically consisted of the vodka-drinking last-man-standing variety. However, we also got tours of cities, most memorably a poignant trip around Volgograd, and a personal insight into the city’s Second World War experiences, cultural visits to ballet and opera, seeing Chile defeat Peru in a World Cup qualifier in front of 80,000 ‘excited’ fans, and cardiac arrest-inducing snow and sauna sessions in central Asia.

Changing perceptions
The experiences made me change my perceptions of other countries, people, and how I worked. Many countries in the region certainly experience ‘donor fatigue’ having endured a succession of often arrogant consultants in and out of their countries, preaching the virtue of US and European models and solutions, but with little understanding of why they wouldn’t work in other countries. The lack of appreciation that solutions in one country might not work elsewhere is quite worrying. The role of a consultant is surely as a provider of information and technical input, with insights into what has worked and hasn’t worked elsewhere in the world. It is a trap we all too often fall into, but shouldn’t.
Spending more time in a country helps, but the mindset is just as important. As consultants we need to be flexible in how we work and think. An appreciation of client needs and client qualities is essential. Whatever your views of the FSU, it had an excellent education system. But often foreign consultants paid lip-service to the views of local lawyers and economists who were eminently well educated and would surely have essential knowledge of what models were likely to work in their own country. Local consultants and experts were always highly trained even the driver on the project team in Kazakhstan had a master’s degree in physics. The everyday reality in most FSU countries is that a taxi driver earns much more than an engineer or doctor. Some mutually beneficially solution to the shortage of professionals in some areas in the UK could surely be found.

In the FSU, most meetings and presentations require the presence of translators language is a big issue. This requires you to rethink how you communicate. I remember attending a conference in Moscow when a fellow speaker attempted to present 62 slides in English in 40 minutes the last 40 coming in around five minutes with a devastating blur of mouse clicks. With simultaneous translations you need to brief the translators and cut out the ‘ back of the envelope ball-park figures’ parlance; with non-simultaneous translations you need to think what you want to say and then cut the quantity by two-thirds. Still, they can sometimes be a lifesaver.
During one visit to Kazakhstan, I woke very late (jet lag!), and only arrived five minutes before a meeting. Having thought that I would do the preparation at breakfast before the meeting, it was eventually done on an ongoing basis throughout the meeting, using the time spent by the translator interpreting my effusive opening comments.
Lack of appreciation of the language was also demonstrated by the pension administration system introduced in Kazakhstan. Foreign consultants recommended using a western system which required roman characters. This in turn meant that local Cyrillic names needed to be translated into western letters. A little bit of research would have uncovered the fact that there are often two or more ways in which Cyrillic names can be converted into a western equivalent, resulting in confusion between agencies with different identifying names.

Imaginative solutions
Although much of the work relied more on my economics background than my actuarial one, the skills built up under the latter were always applicable and useful. Building up solutions from first principles is essential.
Working on such projects is a contradictory and sometimes unsettling experience, in turns frustrating and rewarding. It can take an age to get anything achieved and yet solutions adopted are often radical and imaginative. The countries are often poor and have ramshackle infrastructure, and yet have a really well-educated and self-sufficient population.