From Kiribati to the World Bank

05 Apr 2022

Peer pressure caused Benjamin Tokataake to leave school without completing. But peer pressure also set him on a university journey a decade later, and now he’s an advisor at the World Bank in Washington DC.

University of Waikato alumnus Ben Tokataake works at the World Bank in Washington DC

Ben, a University of Waikato alumnus, frequently uses the skills learned from his Master of Business and Management (MBM) in his role as advisor at the World Bank.

Like all good success stories, Ben’s account includes obstacles, perseverance and sacrifice to receive an education that then paved his way to the World Bank.

During Ben’s final year of high school in Tarawa, the capital island of Kiribati, he succumbed to peer pressure, and left school without completing. “I was good in school but was influenced by others, followed the crowd and got discouraged and left.” He began work in public service in Kiribati, married his high school sweetheart and started a family.

Ironically, it was peer pressure that caused Ben to restart his education a decade after leaving school. “I realised that my school peers returned home with degrees and had good jobs and I became jealous and unhappy about my situation.”

Ben’s work ethic and ability was recognised by his employers who encouraged him to study. “They trusted me even though I didn’t complete high school. I did some courses at the University of South Pacific (USP) in Kiribati to make up for my 7th form year.” He set his sights on an undergraduate degree and applied for, and won, a New Zealand Government scholarship. He attended USP in Fiji and competed a degree in Economics and Public Administration and Management. “My wife was a big part of my success, she was very encouraging and supportive.”

That support continued when Ben decided to come to Waikato in 2012 to complete an MBM after securing another New Zealand Government scholarship. “I came by myself to Waikato and stayed at Orchard Park on campus. I had experienced mild cold weather in Fiji during the cool season, but it’s nothing compared to New Zealand in winter. But I enjoyed the experience and doing something new.” Ben says he appreciated the staff who guided him through his master’s degree. “They were very hard-working and memorable:  Professor Ron McDowell, Associate Professor Peter Sun, Professor Jens Mueller, and Professor Anna Strutt who was my dissertation supervisor, are four lecturers that come to mind.”

On return to Kiribati, Ben received several promotions and in 2018 he was appointed as Secretary for Finance & Economic Development. After two years in that position, he applied for the role of Advisor to the Executive Director for Asia-Pacific at the World Bank in Washington DC, USA, on a two-year contract. “I thought I would not make my way to the World Bank because of the pandemic and government travel restrictions but here I am now with my family, and we are so pleased.”

Ben provides advice and support services for Kiribati, Samoa, the Marshall Islands and countries from the Middle East and North Africa. “My main responsibility is to assist in the analysis of projects proposed by those countries. When a project comes up, I review it and present my views and recommendations to our Executive Director as to whether object, abstain or support those proposals.

“I have to justify my position and recommendation; it’s a big responsibility to get a balance between the benefits for the country applying for a grant or loan and the risks for the bank. I find that the skills of problem solving, strategic management, managerial accounting and critical thinking learned at Waikato Management School are really useful here.”

As Ben’s rotation finishes in early 2023, he will reassess his options whether to find another work elsewhere in the US or in the Pacific, including New Zealand, or return home working again in Kiribati. “I am very grateful for my time at Waikato and the knowledge and the skills that I acquired during my time there. I see Waikato alumni working around the world in large, respectable companies and that’s really gratifying and encouraging because I feel that I went to a world-class university.”

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