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Qahir Dhanani

Advisor to the Senior Vice President, World Bank

Using private sector skills to create impact for global good: an insider’s view of the World Bank. 

The World Bank is one of those institutional names that everyone knows—but how many fully understand what it does? 

The World Bank was created in the 1940s to help European nations recover from the rubble and ruin of World War II. Today, it works with governments, the private sector, civil society, and others in countries around the world, providing financing, global knowledge, and strategic policy advice to help countries grow and prosper in sustainable ways. 

The organization helps the world’s poorest countries—those often unable to finance urgent development needs—by providing loans, grants, knowledge, and advice. The World Bank helps programs support activities such as education, business climate improvement, infrastructure, and institutional reform. 

Such aid is extremely relevant in the world today, with almost 700 million people in extreme poverty: living within $1.90 a day. Although most of the world’s poor are in fragile and conflict-affected situations, poverty also pervades middle income countries. 

Many see the World Bank as a game changer in the field of development, paving the way toward equality, economic growth, job creation, and a better quality of life for billions of people around the world. 

Boston Consulting Group alumnus Qahir Dhanani (Dubai, 2009-2012) has been at the bank for three years, as part of its Young Professionals Program (YPP). His interest in international development was piqued at a young age. Born in Nairobi, he lived there until his family moved to Toronto when he was ten years old. 

“The difference was immense—roads were paved, everything was clean, goods and services were readily available, things just worked—a stark difference in development between a place like Canada and what I’d experienced in Kenya.” 

Armed with an undergraduate degree in government and economics from Cornell, Qahir took his first job with the Aga Khan Development Network, working on microfinance and social development in Africa and the Middle East. Given this experience, he felt he’d need to couple policy with a management, private sector approach if he wanted to be more effective. He went on to get a master of business administration and a master in public policy at Harvard, and to join BCG. He envisioned himself returning to the development sector, perhaps sometime in his 40s, as an executive at a large development organization. 

At the back of his mind, however, he had also been thinking about the World Bank’s YPP. “I applied, sort of on a whim,” he said. “I did not expect to get in.” The selection process was, indeed, intensely competitive. Qahir’s fellow applicants numbered more than 10,000, from which the bank chose just 33 people. “Also, I knew that they prefer PhDs, economists, and such, so I thought that a guy like me with my consulting background would have been of no interest to them.” 

The bank thought differently—he was offered a place. 

The YPP gave Qahir his first placement: the financial and private sector development network in the Latin America and Caribbean Region. Because of his project management experience, he was given the lead position in the design of an innovation project. The project looked at ways to bring crowdfunding to start-ups in the Caribbean, and studied the business and investment interests of the Caribbean diaspora. Qahir applied his BCG mindset to the task. 

A World Bank study, Qahir explained, would normally take a long time to complete. He had other plans. He hired Mina Lee, who at the time was on a leave of absence from BCG’s Singapore office. “I knew what I wanted to achieve and I knew what a BCG associate was capable of."

They designed a study and published a paper in just three months’ time, at a fraction of the “normal” costs. The Diaspora Study is still in use today. “I still get calls about that publication, from people in government, from inside the World Bank, from diaspora networks, asking about our findings and methodology.” 

In his second year, Qahir found himself leading a $300 million portfolio of projects for the Trade & Competitiveness global practice in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. On the back of his first-year results, he had been made a task team leader (TTL). “The TTL role sees you wear all of the BCG hats: analyst, project leader, principal, and partner. There are no teams as we know them at BCG, so the TTL has to do all the nitty gritty aspects of a project’s preparation, such as the slides and documents. But he or she must also engage with clients on a professional level with technical depth, while developing relationships with high-level individuals. As a TTL you own those relationships, you lead the dialog, and you are responsible to deliver.” 

In 2012, just two months before Qahir joined the bank, the organization began a major transformation and change process that culminated in July 2014 in restructuring of the organization into 14 global practices—similar, Qahir explained, to BCG’s practice areas. These practices have since been clustered into three groups, each with its own vice president. “The change process basically meant we had a new operating model and structure. This would naturally take time to settle, but it created much anxiety in the institution.” 

Kyle Peters—now the number three person at the bank—was appointed senior vice president of operations to manage this transformation, and he, in turn, was on the lookout for somebody to help him run the new model. Qahir got the call. 

“Why me? Probably, in part, because I’m a data-driven person. Put anything on the table in front of a group of people at the World Bank, they’re going to ask, ‘where’s your evidence to back this up?’ I think Kyle saw that the BCGer in me had the required analytical mindset. 

“In addition, I would be representing Kyle with other VPs, representing his views, and engaging with senior-level people across the institution. I feel he valued my aptitude in dealing with C suite executives.” 

Qahir says BCG prepared him well for the various roles he’s had so far at the World Bank. “The ability to understand and tackle new problems and challenges; to structure and organize workflows; to get the best out of teams; and to deal with leadership in a mature way, while understanding what drives decision-making at the highest levels—all classic BCG learning.” 

Specifically helpful, he says, has been the ability to distill a problem to its critical aspects, and to explain it succinctly in one page. “I presented such a page to a country’s minister to explain an entire project. Not only was the minister impressed, but my bosses asked ‘why don’t we have a page like this for every project?’

“Working to design projects together with clients, exposing them to the bank’s way of thinking and its global development practices—I’ve seen ministries and bureaucrats change mindsets, change the way they operate. It’s inspiring.” 

Seven decades after its founding, the World Bank’s goals remain ambitious: to end poverty by 2030, and to tackle issues such as inequality, humanitarian crises, and climate change in sustainable ways that respect people and the environment. 

“Development is hard, hairy, and complex. If it was easy, we wouldn’t have poverty in the world. The body of knowledge and the ability to deal with these challenges is something that’s been built up at this institution since the beginning. There’s no topic that isn’t explored here,” Qahir concludes. “It allows us to try to make a difference, and driving that difference is what continues to make the World Bank relevant and important.” 

Qahir has recently been joined in the YPP by another BCG alumnus, Kara Adamon, formerly of the Boston office. The BCG community congratulates both on their participation in this very competitive, impactful program.

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