World Bank economist Oscar Picazo Born to live the African dream

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By Maria Jeanette P. Cordero

A SELF-CONFESSED frustrated journalist and poet, former Varsitarian editor in chief Oscar Picazo said he had never thought that his managing skills and sense of altruism would expand his small world enough for him to become the World Bank’s (WB) senior economist on health and social projects in Africa.
“Working in Africa, I learned real development that I could not get anywhere else,” Picazo told the Varsitarian.

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A twist of fate led Picazo from a career in writing and letters to a life of development economics. At the Faculty of Arts and Letters back in the 1970’s, he took up Economics because of a Department of Education scholarship grant. Although he had a horror of math like most pen-pushers, Picazo soon realized that the courses in the program were not really difficult. He even graduated magna cum laude.
“Economics is nothing but applied common sense,” Picazo said. “You can forget the math, provided you understand the concepts.”
To find an avenue for creative writing, Picazo joined the Varsitarian and was given the literary editorship. For him, the paper was a good avenue in expressing his teenage grief and angst. From then, the Varsitarian’s literary section started to be filled with stories of cashless weekends, busy summers, and solitary trips drawn from Picazo’s experiences. Much to his surprise, he became editor in chief of the paper in 1978.
During his term, the Varsitarian celebrated its 50th anniversary and won the Gawad Batingaw as the best edited university paper. But the operations of the paper were rocked by martial law at its height and super typhoons that flooded España. “Après moi le deluge!” (after the surge) declared one Varsitarian issue, a double entrendre on the martial law regime and the flooding surrounding the campus.
Picazo’s experience in the Varsitarian kindled his original interest in writing. He enrolled for a Master’s degree in Literature at the Ateneo de Manila University for one term, while working in the Institute of Philippine Culture as a research assistant.
But Picazo soon realized that given the imperatives of earning a decent living, he could not rely on literary writing alone. Moreover, he thought that he lacked the disposition of a journalist or a poet.
“The craft was probably nipped in the bud,” Picazo said. “So I chose to be an economist.”
So Picazo took the masteral program in Economics at the University of the Philippines. After graduating in 1983, he worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1986. But the agency’s assistance and activities for the country declined with the closure of the US military bases during former Pres. Corazon Aquino’s term.
“I had to re-engineer myself. Besides, I was beginning to get bored with macroeconomics,” he recalled. “What I was doing then seemed so imitative.”
When health economics was one of the newest disciplines in his field, Picazo decided to be a research associate in the Philippine Institute for Development Studies where he conducted a study on the regional supply and demand of health workers in the country. Still with the USAID, Picazo wrote a research paper on health finance development, the first of its kind in the country that supported initiatives like the creation of PhilHealth.

Off to Africa
In 1991, Picazo received a Hubert Humphrey Fellowship to study health policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He was posted as a regional health financing advisor for USAID in Nairobi, Kenya.
“It was a very risky decision as I did not know anything about Africa, except its rather unfair labeling as the ‘Dark Continent’,” he said. “But as they say, high risks yield high rewards.”
The best years of Picazo’s life started when he moved to Kenya in 1994 and stayed there till 1997. Traveling all over east and southern Africa, he provided technical advice to government and nongovernmental organizations, as well as USAID missions, in the areas of health financing and health economics. In just three years, he was able to work in about a dozen countries while going on safari tours of African national parks and savannahs. Even though the AIDS epidemic was well on its way to becoming a defining feature of life in Kenya, Picazo loved the country for its natural sceneries.
“It is hard to work on these poor countries, where people are not empowered and they are always on the threshold of a disaster in one form or another,“ Picazo said.
In 1997, a staff from the WB offered him a job at their headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Working in an office with a view of Smithsonian museums, he initially felt like he was living his dream. But the feeling quickly dissipated from him.
“Besides, I never warmed up to the American way of life which I found rather impersonal, inexplicably hurried, insidiously competitive, and systematically materialistic,” Picazo said.

Bank balance
Initially, Picazo admitted that he had much hesitation in joining the WB because of its “notoriety” in imposing heavy terms on loaning countries and its unsupervised welfare projects.
But for him, what the WB does is also much misunderstood. Many people are only aware of the work of its macroeconomists who, he said, are “inflation fetishists”: those who would rather “balance the budget” than risk expanding expenditures for social services.
“There is a healthy debate within the WB itself about what the policies should be although one major problem is that macroeconomists continue to reign supreme,” he observed.
Picazo also said that the WB is home to the largest concentration of development specialists in the world. One can find an expert in a variety of fields like climate change, social protection, labor regulation, water and sanitation, and even malaria. It has also been involved in “softer” areas as well, such as health— where Picazo is active—HIV/AIDS, education, and natural-resource management.
“The WB is like a huge graduate school or a research outfit in which there is endless learning. It prides itself in being a ‘knowledge’ bank,” Picazo said. “I think the bank could be a real force of positive change, given its size, resources, and level of influence. But one must admit that there is much need for change with the institution. It is simply too powerful.”
Despite being workaholic, Picazo definitely enjoys the outdoors. During his stay in the US, his summers were filled with concerts, barbecues-on-deck, flea market discoveries, and occasional camping. He also liked to spend weekends in huge bookstores.