An incredible light bulb moment

Chemical Engineering student Tom Perfrement explains what it’s like to represent Australia at the World Bank and IMF annual meetings.

Tom Perfrement: UNSW Chemical Engineering StudentIn early October of this year, I travelled to Washington DC as one of six Australian youth delegates to the World Bank and IMF combined annual meeting.

Over several days, I represented Australia at a wide array of international summits and private meetings. Some of the highlights included: a Civil Society roundtable with World Bank President Dr Jim Yong Kim and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, briefings with Australian executives on the World Bank and IMF boards, seminars at DC-based policy think tanks and a private tour of the US State Department.

Enthralling doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.

The delegation was organised by Global Voices, a not-for-profit organisation whose mission is to provide internationally-minded young Australians with practical experience in the realms of foreign relations and diplomacy. Funding was provided by their sponsorship partner QANTAS and the UNSW Co-op Scholarship Program.

The Global Voices experience comprises three components: a research fellowship, pre-departure briefings with Australian MPs and government officials, and the international summit meetings at both the World Bank and IMF.

For the research fellowship, we were tasked with investigating a topical issue relevant to the World Bank and its mission to eliminate extreme poverty. I chose to explore the role of economic policy in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis. My research paper investigates the use of a tradable refugee admission quota system to provide a humanitarian and cost-effective method of distributing refugee quotas. The intent is to provide a short-term solution to the crisis that could also serve as a crucial development tool for refugees’ countries of origin, longer term.

The pre-departure briefings served two purposes: to prepare delegates for the upcoming international summits and to provide us with insights and feedback on our research fellowships. This involved media training, developing an understanding of Australia’s policy priorities on the international stage, and an overview of expectations.

In Canberra, we discussed aid development policy, peace-building and Australia’s role on the UN Security Council with officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Following this, as a delegate to the World Bank, I was briefed on DFAT’s engagement with the institution and Australia’s priorities for the World Bank annual meeting.

At the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Deputy Secretary Dr David Gruen discussed the value of the World Bank in the 21st century and offered his perspective on my research topic. To test my ideas with an economist of Dr Gruen’s stature was an unparalleled opportunity, for which I am immensely grateful.

Briefings with Labor MP Andrew Leigh and Greens MP Scott Ludlam paved the way for our meeting with Malcolm Turnbull. The Prime Minister emphasised the value of Australia’s role on the international stage as an innovative, practical middle power and wished us well for our upcoming international duties. And with that, we were officially delegates, deputised to act and speak as a civil society representative of Australia.

Washington was a whirlwind of activity. After a comprehensive orientation from the World Bank Civil Society team we plunged into four days of intense sessions. We discussed a huge range of issues with officials and leaders from all over the world, including our own former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

But the highlight was the round table session with Dr Jim Yong Kim and Christine Lagarde. Sitting down at the same table with the world’s principal financial leaders to discuss issues of global relevance was an experience I will never forget!

One of the epiphanies of this trip was when I saw that although we were approaching people of very senior status, everyone was very receptive and willing to talk to young people such as myself. It was an incredible light bulb moment: I realised that I could be in these people’s shoes in the years to come, as indeed, they had once been in our shoes, as young leaders.

Overall, it was an incredible privilege and honour to represent Australia on the world stage at the 2016 World Bank and IMF annual meetings. Whilst the World Bank and IMF are two separate entities, their overlap and common ground allows them to combine forces for their yearly summit. The primary purpose of the IMF is to ensure the stability of the international monetary system, and I personally believe that we are strong hands under the leadership of Christine Lagarde.

As I exited the airport on my return to Sydney, I reflected on the significance of this opportunity. In line with Canadian management consultant Dominic Barton’s theory of ‘tri-sector athletes’ in which the leaders of the future will have professional experience across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors, I now intend to devote a part of my career to public service. But ultimately, the experience has inspired me to engage with the key challenges of our era, such as climate change and the global migration crisis. I can’t thank the Global Voices team and the UNSW Co-op Scholarship Program enough for enabling this phenomenal opportunity.

In recent years, historic progress has been made towards the goal of eliminating extreme poverty. Yet, the challenges of today are as complex and as vexing as ever. At the 2016 World Bank meeting Dr Jim Yong Kim stated that we are the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty. This is a great challenge but also a great opportunity and after my experience in Washington, I remain as optimistic as ever. 

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