When Julie Fraser arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, in January 2002, it was clear that the mission at hand would be unlike any she’d had before. The Kabul airport had been one of the primary targets of the U.S. invasion three months earlier, and the widespread destruction was evident as soon as she stepped off the plane.
“There were parts of bombed-out aircraft littering the tarmac—a fuselage here, a tail piece there—and all the windows in the airport had been blown out,” Fraser says. “We also were advised not to wander off the tarmac since the airport was heavily mined.”
At the time, Fraser was a 10-year veteran with the World Bank, an international financial organization dedicated to fighting poverty in developing countries worldwide. She was used to challenging assignments in faraway places, but the mission to Afghanistan was her first in a war-torn area. As part of the initial joint World Bank and International Monetary Fund mission to help the country rebuild, she and her colleagues operated under the tight security umbrella of the United Nations. In the early going, there were only 83 UN international staff, including Fraser, allowed in the country at any one time—because 83 was the maximum number of passengers the plane could hold if they had to be evacuated at a moment’s notice.
All risks aside, Fraser looks back with fondness on the five years she ended up spending in Afghanistan. And she feels similarly about her other assignments as well, including her current stint as Senior Financial Analyst with the Southeast Asia Sustainable Development Unit in Bangkok. Her 20-year career with the World Bank—the only employer she has had since graduating from Owen in 1991—is a testament to the pleasure she takes in her job.
“I’m proudest of my time in Afghanistan. One thing I liked about it is that I could feel the immediate effects of what we were doing.”
Fraser attributes this long tenure to the solid finance education she received at Vanderbilt. She says it has enabled her to enjoy a variety of assignments and grow as an employee. “Some positions at the World Bank are sector-specific, like being a road engineer or an agricultural economist,” she says. “But with a finance background, you can work across a wide spectrum and have an interesting career.”
Fraser also credits her colleagues for making the World Bank such a fascinating place to work. “They are smart, intellectually curious and deeply committed to the bank’s mission—all of which makes it a stimulating environment,” she says. “They also come from all over the world. It’s not unusual to have a team dinner and for each person to be from a different country.”
Today’s World Bank, comprising the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association, is much larger in size and scope than the original institution, which was established in 1944 to assist with post-World War II reconstruction. In all, there are approximately 10,000 employees in more than 100 offices worldwide. These offices work primarily with governments to provide low-interest loans, interest-free credits and grants for investments in education, health, public administration, infrastructure, agriculture, financial and private sector development, and environmental and natural resource management.
Fraser’s earliest World Bank assignments were with the Central Transport Unit working on railway projects in China and then Pakistan. During the early ’90s, the governments of both countries were considering reforming their respective railway systems, and she had the task of creating financial models showing the benefits of introducing private sector participation. The reform movements in both countries, however, made little headway. In the case of Pakistan, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ultimately decided to appoint an army general to run the railway instead—a disappointing result after years of effort by Fraser and her colleagues.
Such experiences are not uncommon in World Bank work, Fraser explains. Projects often can be slowed to a standstill by tangles of red tape and weak government capacity. “Dealing with the weak capacity in some of these foreign governments is probably the toughest part of my job,” she says. “Many times when you’re trying to get something done that should be relatively easy, you end up going from pillar to post.”
Fraser, however, is quick to add that a successful mission more than makes up for the frustrating moments along the way. “The best part of all,” she says, “is being able to go into the field and see the people who are benefiting from our projects.” As evidence, she points to her recent work with rural electrification in Cambodia and Laos. In the case of the latter, a project financed by the World Bank has dramatically increased Laotians’ access to electricity—from 16 percent of the population in 1995 to approximately 70 percent today.
“It’s so rewarding to go into a rural village and see families who have electricity for the first time in their lives,” she says. “They no longer have to read by kerosene, and their kids are able to study at night.”
Yet of all the missions Fraser has undertaken, she says none has been as edifying as the one to Afghanistan. The devastation caused by generations of conflict meant that the World Bank was able to have that much more of an impact upon its arrival in 2002. Even the tiniest steps of progress could be appreciated on a wide scale.
“I’m proudest of my time in Afghanistan,” she says. “One thing I liked about it is that I could feel the immediate effects of what we were doing. In other places it’s not so easy. You may not see the benefit of your work until a couple of years after the project closes.”
In Afghanistan, Fraser managed the World Bank’s energy program and led donor coordination efforts for the energy sector. Among her more memorable experiences was working closely with Ismail Khan, a former mujahedeen commander whom President Hamid Karzai appointed as Minister of Energy. Khan had made a name for himself as a fierce and sometimes ruthless leader during the war against the Soviets, and yet there he was, a conservative Muslim working shoulder-to-shoulder with Fraser—a Westerner and a woman, no less—to spur rebuilding efforts.
“There was such a strong feeling of the need for everyone to work alongside one another to get things done, and the hardships we faced together made it that more meaningful,” she says.
In a way, this observation could describe not just her mission to Afghanistan, but every one of her stops around the globe. If Fraser has learned anything from logging all of those miles, it’s that no one can tackle the toughest humanitarian problems alone.
“You come out of business school thinking that you can solve any issue, but seeing the scope of these problems can be daunting,” she says. “I guess that just makes it all the more gratifying when you can come together to bring about some good in this world.”