Leah Gutierrez
Leah Gutierrez, Director General of ADB’s Pacific Regional Department

On 30 June, the Asian Development Bank Board (ADB) generally endorsed its Pacific Approach 2021-2025, the blueprint for future activities in 12 of ADB’s 14 developing member countries in the Pacific. In this Q&A, Leah Gutierrez, Director General of ADB’s Pacific Regional Department, outlines the key priorities in the Pacific Approach for 2021-2025, the impact of COVID-19 on the region over the past two years and into the future, and what she’s most looking forward to about visiting the Pacific when travel restrictions are lifted.

Q. What is the Pacific Approach 2021-2025 and why is it so important?

Ms. Gutierrez: The Pacific Approach serves as the country partnership strategy for the next five years for ADB’s 12 Pacific small island developing states (SIDS): Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. It is a strategy tailored for the specific needs of these countries and has been prepared in close consultation with Pacific governments, development partners, civil society, and the private sector. The Pacific Approach recognizes that while these countries have similar challenges—rebounding from the global pandemic, advancing social protection and gender equality, resilience against climate change and natural disasters, building long-term capacity, and so on—how they confront these challenges is often unique to each country’s circumstances, capacity, and location. So it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Q. What is new and different about this Pacific Approach?

Ms. Gutierrez: ADB’s active operations in the Pacific are valued at more than $2.8 billion and will continue to focus on key areas vital to the region: improving transport, combating climate change, expanding renewable energy, and boosting information and communication technology. These are the core areas of ADB’s work with our developing member countries in the Pacific.

But this Pacific Approach also features several new priorities, including a stronger emphasis on health care services and social protection. COVID-19 has shown us how easily a pandemic can stretch health services and cripple entire economies. Building resilience in the way healthcare is administered and provided will prepare the region in the event of another pandemic. The importance of social protection cannot be overstated either, it is vital that there are systems in place that protect and support the poor and vulnerable, especially during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another thing that is new is the way ADB will approach climate change and natural disasters. In the past, we have taken a project-based approach. Under this new Pacific Approach, building resilience against climate change and natural disasters will take a strategic country-level approach. This issue is too important to be viewed project by project, it is one that needs to be taken into consideration with all the other work happening within a country.

Lastly, the Pacific Approach 2021-2025 will have a new emphasis on private sector development. ADB will implement a new private sector strategy for the region, focusing on renewable energy, financial institutions, tourism, and fisheries. ADB’s Trade Finance Program will increase access to finance for medium, small, and micro-enterprises, and there will be an increase in nonsovereign operations in key infrastructure sectors using direct equity investments. The Private Sector Development Initiative, a technical assistance cofinanced by ADB and governments of Australia and New Zealand will continue helping reduce the costs of doing business by modernizing business regulations, boosting access to credit, and reforming state-owned enterprises.

Q. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected ADB’s plans to roll out the Pacific Approach?

Ms. Gutierrez: The pandemic has interrupted everyone’s plans and ADB and our developing member countries in the Pacific are no different. So, last year, when the likely depth and length of the impacts of COVID-19 started to become apparent, we had to take a step back. We wanted to ensure this Pacific Approach contextualized the impacts of COVID-19 and set forth a pathway to recovery. This also had to be done in a way that did not overlook the existential threat to the region—climate change and natural hazards, which are growing in frequency and intensity. So the Pacific Approach is prioritizing not just an even, inclusive, and sustainable recovery from the pandemic, but one that also mitigates and adapts to the threat of climate change and natural disasters in the region.

Q. You are now in your second year as the Director General of ADB’s Pacific Regional department. What have you learned about the Pacific in that time?

Ms. Gutierrez: There was a lot to get my head around when I came into this job. The Pacific department covers a large, diverse region. We work with 14 countries spanning seven different time zones. Each of these countries has its own unique culture, identity, and development challenges, and it has been important to learn as much as I can about them. And then, of course, the global pandemic hit a few months after I started in this role. That has created huge challenges and pressures for all our countries, both from a health and an economic point of view. My priority as the Director General has been to work with our countries on providing timely assistance to our countries to mitigate this impact. So far, ADB’s COVID-19 related assistance to developing member countries in the Pacific has totaled almost $1.3 billion. Emerging from this pandemic in a green, resilient, and inclusive way will perhaps be the number one challenge for the Pacific in this decade, and ADB and the Pacific Approach will play a key role in that recovery.

Q. You are one of only a few women leading a regional department at ADB—and also the second consecutive woman to serve as Director General of ADB’s Pacific Regional Department. How does the issue of gender inform the work you do?

Ms. Gutierrez: For me, gender is very important, not just from the point of view of basic equality but it is also an economic imperative. Study after study shows how critical it is for girls and women to have the same opportunities—legally, economically, socially, financially, professionally—as men. The issue of gender equality is not a zero-sum game. By empowering women and providing them with the same opportunities and protections as men, we help to build the economy that benefits everyone. The Pacific Approach will ensure that gender is mainstreamed in everything we do, and that will only have benefits for all people across our Pacific countries.

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Q. The impact of COVID-19 means you’re yet to visit the Pacific in your capacity as Director General. What are you most looking forward to when borders re-open and you can travel to the Pacific?

Ms. Gutierrez: The thing that makes this job so rewarding and enjoyable is the people. Not just the people I work with here at ADB and the Pacific department but also the people we work with in our developing member countries. In my previous roles, I’ve always found officials and colleagues from the Pacific to be warm and friendly. That has certainly been the case as I’ve been in regular dialogue with our leaders in the Pacific since joining the department. But there is nothing like having that kind of interaction face to face. So I am looking forward to not just meeting with our government leaders but also other community leaders and members in our Pacific countries and hearing about their stories, challenges, and hopes. I am also looking forward to enjoying the food, the music, and the sunsets!