Profile with Penelope Brook

Penelope Brook (New Zealand & Nuffield 1984) is the World Bank Director for Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.  As an employee of the World Bank since 1993, a central focus of her work has been how to ensure reforms intended to strengthen the infrastructure sectors and the good functioning of markets result in better services and opportunities for the poor. She holds a DPhil in Economics from the University of Oxford and an MA in Economics from the University of Auckland.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in Buenos Aires?

Penelope Brook: Buenos Aires is a very beautiful and varied city, and rich in culture. It has interesting art galleries, wonderful music, great numbers of bookshops.  It’s very much a city that you enjoy for its daily life; the perfect place to spend the morning in a cafe with the newspaper, or spend an afternoon walking, enjoying the incredible mix of architecture.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?

Penelope Brook: I am in the middle of two at the moment. One is Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo with photos by Robert Llewellyn. It’s a wonderful book that encourages you to watch closely what is going on with a tree through the course of a year—the minute details of leaf buds opening or flowers emerging - and the perfect book to be reading now when the trees are losing the last of their leaves here. The other book is a collection of stories by the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, called Gorse is Not People. I’m taking this slowly; I don’t like the idea of having no more Janet Frame stories to read.

Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?

Penelope Brook: I grew up in a town called Henderson, which is just west of Auckland. My first job, as a teenager, was shelving books at the Henderson public library on a Friday night.

Rhodes Project: What does your typical day at work look like?

Penelope Brook: As a World Bank country director, you are responsible for the development of strategy in the country, working with the government to figure out where you want to go together, and how to get there. The Bank has recently agreed two very specific objectives. One is the elimination of absolute poverty by 2030. The other is to enhance what we call “shared prosperity”, which is the extent to which, as countries grow, the poorest 40 percent participate in that growth. Identifying how best to approach these goals together is very much a matter of listening and trying to ensure you bring the best of the wide range of services offered by the World Bank Group to a particular client. Every day brings something completely unexpected. You never get up in the morning or at the beginning of the week and know what is going to happen.  This is part of the excitement of the job.

Rhodes Project: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Penelope Brook: I get to work with and meet the most committed and creative people, addressing issues like how to get access to good infrastructure, health and education services for the most vulnerable, including in remote communities, or how to work with small farmers not only to make a good livelihood, but to do so in a manner that is environmentally sustainable.  But the big reward comes when you see results, measured in terms of peoples’ lives getting better. As an example, we’ve been working with the Argentinean government on basic health services for pregnant women and small children – and in the last six years we have seen an average 26% reduction in infant mortality.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part?

Penelope Brook: There is no blueprint for development.  In the end, what works is shaped by local circumstances, political economy and culture.  In this context, our greatest assets are often our ability to listen, and our willingness to admit to mistakes, and learn from them.  

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your mentors?

Penelope Brook: For me, mentoring is not something done only by people who are more experienced or more senior. Colleagues or those who work for you often show you different ways of doing things, and encourage you to look at things differently. Mentoring has a fluid definition for me:  all the people who have helped me navigate complex situations or inspired me to think in a different way have been mentors.

Rhodes Project: Is there any one moment in your career you would like to re-visit and change?

Penelope Brook: I’ve never had a carefully planned career path, plotting out, “This is where I am going, and these are all the steps I’ll need to take to get there, and this is what it will all look like when I’m fifty.” I’ve been fortunate to have been offered opportunities to do many exciting things; my career has been shaped by saying “yes”. There’s been a lot of learning, but no regrets.

Rhodes Project: Can you remember a particular situation when someone inspired you?

Penelope Brook: I meet so many people who are just doing incredibly creative things to open up opportunities for people who don’t have many. To give just one example: the man who teaches me the cello works with children in the slums of Buenos Aires. The children come every Saturday to learn, practice and play together.  And so do their teachers – Saturday after Saturday, year after year.  I’m inspired by the commitment and sheer hard work of people who work to make things better, one child, one family at a time. 

Rhodes Project: What do you like to do to relax?

Penelope Brook: The most relaxing thing for me is to go and walk in a forest. Buenos Aires is a bit short of forests, but there is an ecological reserve close to where I live which is the perfect place to walk on a Sunday morning. Learning the cello is not exactly relaxing, but it is something that I’ve always wanted to do. And you can’t think or worry about anything else when you are playing.

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