January 3, 2005
World Bank's catalyst for
changeBy THAM AI MEI
World Bank education specialist Lee Ching Boon helps to shape
the education policies of Third World countries.
Name: Lee Ching
Hometown: Kuala Lumpur
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
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
There have been many unforgettable moments for this remarkable
woman during the course of her work.
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
World Bank-financed operations include projects that ensure
children have access to safe drinking water, proper sanitation
and at least a meal a day.
“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
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
At Harvard, she did a dissertation on returns from human capital
investments, which was a relatively new field of study at that
“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
“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.
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.
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
As for the big picture, Lee has many hopes and dreams for the
“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