Our current Director, Thomas Richardson, and Iwona Kabat-Lefebre, the first employee of the Joint Vienna Institute, are both retiring soon. In the interview below, they share their thoughts and experiences with us.
Iwona: Tom, in September this year, you leave the IMF after 27 years of an interesting and challenging career. Looking back at those years what is your most memorable assignment?
Tom: Thanks Iwona. I’ve been lucky to have had many great assignments—Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Cyprus, Uganda, India, Nepal, Bhutan, as well as JVI. I think I grew as an economist and as a person in all of them, so it’s hard to pick only one. Perhaps I can mention Uganda, though, because it’s the one country I worked on that is clearly developing, growing out of dire poverty. I learned a great deal in Uganda and Africa more generally about what international partners can, and cannot, achieve. I came to respect my counterparts, who work under much more difficult circumstances, and who face policy choices that are often starker and more consequential for their people than is true in richer countries. If you can, I think you should try to make a trip to Africa at some point.
Iwona, you also finish your career at the JVI in July this year, after 28 years! What made you stay in the JVI for so long?
Iwona: Contact with people and the challenges that the job offered. Every group was different, even if the arrangements were the same or very similar. I enjoyed meeting new people and I was always happy to see some participants coming back to the JVI with enthusiasm, smile and always a good word. With many, even from the early 1990s, I am still in touch. Participants and their networking create one side of the JVI. However, very important to the daily life and wanting to come to the office every day, are the JVI colleagues! The JVI team is very special, very professional, friendly and supportive. In my view, we all create a welcoming and family-like atmosphere so that both, participants and lecturers, love coming back to the JVI. I am sure that this will continue, as the welcoming atmosphere, high standards of courses, the presenters and their expertise, hands-on workshops are a trademark of the JVI.
Tom, you worked as an IMF Resident Representative in many countries. What countries did you work in and how long were the assignments?
Tom: I was in Russia in the 1990s for three years, in Uganda for three years before India, and in India for four years before coming to JVI. I loved living in all these places, and consider myself very fortunate for having had the opportunity to do so, and to bring my family to places on several continents.
Iwona: You speak Russian which is not usual for an American. Did you learn it for pleasure or was it necessary in the talks with authorities as an IMF Resident Representative?
Tom: I studied Russian as an undergraduate, and I think I did that a little bit to get under my father’s skin at that cold war time. (It didn’t work, by the way. He was never phased by that, or my politics, or by my long hair!) I love the language, but couldn’t really speak well until we moved to Moscow in the early 1990s, when I asked my friends and counterparts to speak only Russian with me. After that I used it quite a lot in Belarus and also in Moldova, as well as here at JVI.
You come from Poland Iwona, and you were the very first employee of the JVI. How did it happen that you found the job in the JVI in 1992?
Iwona: At that time I was in London, working for a well-known dictionary publishers Cassell. When the Soviet Union collapsed, jobs with Russian and Polish were coming up on the London job market. I welcomed it as a new challenge and a new opportunity to progress in my career. I also wanted to use my Russian as I have a degree in Russian Philology from the University of Gdansk. In addition, in London, at least at that time, one could get extra money for every foreign language you knew! This sounded very promising to me. Knowing Polish and Russian I started looking for the new opportunities. Karin Schumacher from the Training Section of the IMF Institute carried out interviews in a job agency in London. I was thrilled to be selected! A two-year contract in the city of Mozart and Strauss music sounded so exciting! I did not expect that Vienna will become my new home and that I shall live here for 28 years!
In September 2016, Tom, you gave up the sunshine and the colorful traditions of India to move to Vienna to take up a positon of a Director in the Joint Vienna Institute. Did the love for Strauss and Mozart music influence your decision to move to Vienna or were the challenges that the JVI directorship offered the main motivation?
Tom: Thanks Iwona. I have found that capacity building projects are often the most rewarding aspects of IMF work, so I was eyeing the JVI for a long time. I was also attracted by the opportunity to work with countries in this region, many of which I knew from earlier stages in my IMF career. But maybe most important, I knew the JVI team by reputation as being extremely professional, efficient, and caring. Whenever someone comes to Vienna from one of our partner organizations, they tell me privately that they love to teach at the JVI; everything works as it’s supposed to: IT, interpretation, course administration. That is really a testament to the hard work you and your colleagues have done over many years to make JVI a truly great place to teach and work.
Iwona, how would you describe the beginning of the JVI? What was it like to invent an institute like the JVI? What were the biggest challenges at the beginning?
Iwona: Karin Schumacher was the first Chief of Administration and under her guidance, together with a few colleagues we created the JVI in August 1992. The JVI was a new baby. The initial idea was to provide a fast training in transition from a centrally planned to a market oriented economy to the government officials coming from central and south Europe and the former Soviet Union. There were three “empty” floors in the building of the Austrian Customs Training Centre in Erdberg assigned to the new JVI. The lecture rooms, workshop rooms and offices had to be purpose-built for our needs. With some wires hanging over our heads, builders setting up the walls and painters making it all look new, we created participant lists, nameplates, ID cards, set up medical insurance coverage, made contacts with local restaurants and photo studios for our social arrangements. We had “long” small screen computers. No Microsoft Office yet, just a word processor, which was a great help for our needs. No emails, no internet only telex and faxes were used to communicate with the participants from the JVI eligible countries and their authorities. Looking back, it was so much fun and such a rewarding experience.
Covid-19 has changed everyone’s lives and has changed the JVI training, at least temporarily. How has the JVI under your management responded to the new training needs, Tom?
Tom: I think we all initially underestimated the Covid-19 shock. We may still be underestimating it, at least in terms of impact on economies and livelihoods in our region. But after a few weeks of lockdown, we all began to realize that life would not return quickly to normal, and we started to think about ways of reaching our colleagues in the 31 JVI countries with virtual technologies. We put together webinars, and then virtual courses, learning new technologies and skills in the process. I must say, I found your dedication to the JVI mission at this time to be quite inspiring. With just a few weeks to go before retirement, you were very enthusiastic about learning how to manage a Webex event, and how to administer a virtual course. I could see real excitement in your eyes (over Skype, of course) when you talked about how this reinvention of the JVI reminded you of the first invention of the JVI in the 1990s!
Iwona: Your JVI time is not over yet. What memories of the JVI will you be taking with you when going back to the States?
Tom: My favorite evening of the JVI calendar is the International Dinner during the Applied Economic Policy course. That’s our long course (5 weeks), meant to build friendships and partnerships across countries and institutions. We have been doing the AEP (originally known as the Comprehensive Course) since the early 1990s, and at the International Dinner everyone prepares a meal from their home country. The food is great, but what is even better is the pride our participants always demonstrate in showing off their country. I have also been touched to see folks from countries in conflict with one another prepare joint dishes, to illustrate how JVI is a place where bridges can be built across borders.
Iwona, can you tell me how the JVI in 2020 compares to the JVI in 1992?
Iwona: As for the atmosphere, it is the same old good JVI! However, the participants have changed as well as the training needs. Participants have become younger, more experienced in travel, with an extensive network of professionals coming from all over the world, and with excellent English! The courses from four and six weeks long have become shorter, more intensive but also offering more hands-on workshops. The current JVI program is very innovative and constantly changing to respond to the needs of our countries. I am happy to say that the JVI team responded almost immediately to the travel restrictions due to COVID-19 by offering the webinars and virtual training to replace, for the time being, the face-to-face courses. I consider myself lucky to be a part of the newly created e-JVI offering the virtual training in my last two months at the JVI. Although difficult at the beginning, it was a great challenge and fun. My colleagues will continue with this trend thus strengthening the virtual training and adding a new dimension to the JVI.
Tom: The JVI has over 45,000 alumni. Many participated in the groups which you coordinated, and I am sure you remember many of them well. What message would you have for them?
Iwona: Meeting the participants and getting to know them was a highlight of my work at the JVI. They motivated me to give them support and they knew they could count on me. For this trust, their friendship and their smile I would like to thank them. For the future, please support the JVI by communicating the training needs for your countries and attending the courses and the webinars as your knowledge helps your countries develop further and you progress in your careers. I shall miss you dearly.
Tom, what message would you like to pass on to the next JVI Director?
Tom: I would like to suggest that Hervé Joly, who comes to JVI most recently from the IMF’s capacity building center in East Africa, follow the advice that my predecessor Norbert Funke gave me. And that is to trust the JVI team. They have been doing a fantastic job for 28 years, and while we will be weaker when you leave, Iwona, I know we have hired great young program officers to carry on. I have not been steered wrong by Norbert’s advice!
Can you share a memorable story from your time in the JVI with us, Iwona? There must have been some really unexpected events from time to time!
Iwona: In the building of the Customs Training Center in Erdberg, where the JVI was located from 1992 until 2003, participants had 4 large TV rooms at their disposal which they were using for their parties and discos. The most popular night was a Thursday night, when coming back from a farewell dinner at a heuriger, everyone was in a mood to continue to sing, dance and be merry. The building was shared with the customs officers who stayed there when they had their exams. The party was accepted until midnight and a little after. After that, an officer on duty came to us asking to turn down the music, which of course the group DJ did immediately… only to turn it up again a few minutes later! I must say that the customs officers were very patient with our groups as there were many parties going on. With time, they found a peaceful solution, which allowed custom officers and other participants to sleep without any interruptions! Asking a couple of times to turn down the music, the officer on duty switched off the fuses on the floor… the party was over! Participants often joked that the officers did not like the choice of music!
Our participants were playing their music in the evenings, whereas a military orchestra did their practice in the courtyard of the Customs Training Centre before various national festivities. On those days, learning macroeconomics to the sound of the military marches was fun and unforgettable experience!
Tom, as JVI Director you contributed greatly to maintaining the JVI status and developing it further to serve the JVI eligible countries. I am sure that many participants and lecturers will stop by your office to say hello when we shall be again offering face-to-face training. Will you be missing such brief visits?
Tom: I always liked to open a course by saying I am one of the weird people who likes Monday morning. Why? Because it’s on Monday morning that I get to meet a new batch of JVI participants. I will miss hearing what is going on in all the JVI countries, but I’ll be following JVI on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/JointViennaInstitute/) and in this Newsletter, and I hope to visit often!
Iwona: Tom, I would like to thank you for this interesting conversation. What can I wish you for your upcoming retirement? You will be surprised to hear that I have overhead your conversation when someone asked you what to wish you for your retirement. You said: “a long and healthy retirement!” On behalf of the JVI team, I would like to wish you an enjoyable and long retirement in good health with new impressions and memories. When you visit Vienna again as a tourist, we shall be very happy to see you again. Many thanks for your guidance and your mentorship over the last four years! Safe travels to the US.
Tom: Likewise Iwona, I want to wish you a long, healthy and active retirement. And I know you’ll stay connected to the JVI and the broader JVI family, so I expect to see you here when I visit Vienna from time to time!
Thomas Richardson, Director, JVI
Iwona Kabat-Lefebre, Program Officer, JVI