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Aceh Diary: Wolfowitz visit

Pwinaceh_1 Paul Wolfowitz was coming to Aceh – it was to be his first stop on his first official trip to Indonesia as WB President. It was a highly anticipated visit, as he was returning to a country where he had spent a successful run as US Ambassador 20 years ago. The Aceh leg of the journey was as a huge deal as well given the Bank’s commitment to the province. So our WB colleagues had been working tirelessly for weeks to impress and make sure all went off without a hitch. That generally means sticking to the schedule, but when the boss wants a detour you can hardly refuse….

It was about 5:30pm on April 5th, I had just come back from a meeting and was camped at my desk (I've recently taken over the reception area of the IFC office in Aceh as we don't have a receptionist at present, and that's the quietest area I could find on the premises). So here I was, with a soda, dirty napkins, and an open packet of chips lying across my desk amongst all the papers, chatting with one of our consultants, and in walks Paul Wolfowitz. No announcement at all. With him was a sizeable entourage composed mainly of senior World Bank staff from DC, Jakarta, and Aceh, and of course a bodyguard complete with an earpiece like you see in the movies – I looked from them to our consultant, John, standing there with a chip halfway to his mouth, both of us thinking "this isn't really happening?!" Handshakes (sheepish on our part) and polite exchanges over, as he moved inside to greet other staff, leaving John and I to turn accusing eyes on the WB communications officer who just shrugged apologetically and said there was no way to give us even a few minutes notice. Then to totally rub it in, the heretofore very stolid bodyguard suddenly flashed me a grin and said "You mean those weren't hors d'oeuvres for us?" referring to half eaten bag of chips I was trying to subtly stash inside a drawer.

Our shock was partly due to the fact that Mr. Wolfowitz showed up at our office within an hour after landing in Aceh, especially when IFC hadn’t been on his agenda at all (we had set up less than 6 months ago and didn’t have as much as the WB by way of program activities/results to show). Apparently he had been on his way to a mass grave site which led the party past our office, when he decided to stop in and say hello. Despite the initial embarrassment at being caught so off guard it was really great to be able to meet our President in person – I think that's one of the rewards of working in the field i.e. the access you sometimes have to persons you may never meet in person otherwise. And the best thing is that it was the very spontaneous nature of the visit that actually enabled him to see the true environment we work in on a day to day basis.

IFC staff was also invited to the WB office the next afternoon where Mr. Wolfowitz formally met all the Bank Group staff working in Aceh. It was an informal affair with all of us gathered around over refreshments in a garage that had been converted to a conference room. Many staff members got a chance to speak with him and his advisors one-on-one, relating our experiences, asking questions etc. It was quite clear in his address to the staff how special Indonesia and Aceh was to him, and how much he valued the hard work that the Bank Group and others were doing in Aceh. Later that evening, at a dinner hosted by the acting Governor of Aceh, we had a chance to witness this once again. In a beautiful and elaborate ceremony Mr. Wolfowitz was presented with an intricately wrought traditional sword, making him an honorary member of Acehnese society. What was very touching and interesting to me personally was that while the speech made by the governor was in English, Mr.Wolfowitz’s address was almost entirely in Bahasa – while that meant I didn’t understand a good part of what he said at the time, judging from the appreciation and support of the Acehnese and Indonesians present, the gesture and content of what was said certainly had struck a chord. Traditional music and dances followed a sumptuous dinner, all of it a complete sensory feast.

In all, the unscheduled time afforded to the IFC during Mr. Wolfowitz’s visit was a milestone for us indeed, but in addition the relationship-building and continued WBG commitment to Aceh that we had a chance to witness during his trip served as a reminder to us of why we’re there and all that we still need to accomplish.

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