In the Spotlight | Featuring: Barry Maher - This Actuary Collaborates for Disaster Risk Finance

Rwanda, Uganda
Sub-Saharan Africa
04 May 2023

In conversation with Barry Maher, Senior Financial Sector Specialist

Barry Maher's trip to Karamoja, Uganda, in 2017, left a lasting impression. The region is a picture of utter beauty, with vibrant greenery and stunning blue skies. But, 80% of its population lives below the poverty line and chronic food insecurity is rife. Karamoja is also highly vulnerable to drought, famine, and floods. As a trained actuary with a passion for development work, Barry had been working on a social safety net program for the region for several months before visiting to assess its impact. "Despite the difficulties, meeting the beneficiaries and seeing first-hand how the program improved lives remains one of my most powerful motivators to work in climate risk finance. As a Senior Financial Sector Specialist working with Ministries of Finance and central banks, I don't often get the chance to be in the field. That experience reminded me of why I do what I do," Barry explains.


Q: What motivated you to pursue a career in Disaster Risk Finance (DRF)? 

I come from a loving family in Ireland, where education was prioritized and interests were nurtured. That said, from a very young age, I have been keenly aware of my privilege and that not all people grow up in nurturing environments. My work in Financial Resilience is driven by a combination of three things that I am very passionate about. First, the climate crisis. About 15 years ago, I read the book The Limits to Growth, which deals with the possibility of exponential economic and population growth with a finite supply of resources. It impacted me greatly and empowered me to think differently. Second, as an actuary I’ve specialized in financial risk management, critical for working on financial resilience. Finally, the desire to work on development issues. I feel very privileged to be where I am today, supporting the less fortunate achieve their goals and ambitions as part of my profession.


Q: How has the DRF agenda changed in the past 10 years?

The financial resilience landscape has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past decade. When I joined the World Bank, the focus was primarily on natural catastrophe insurance markets, with a handful of examples of risk financing being embedded into lending operations. However, today the situation is vastly different! The agenda has grown with client demand to include sovereign risk financing, risk financing for livelihoods, and small and medium enterprises. The Global Knowledge agenda has evolved and is influencing the development of systematic country diagnostics and country partnership frameworks in most IDA and IBRD countries, as well as global initiatives such as the G20 and V20. And globally, financial resilience is increasingly being integrated into Country Management Unit portfolios, covering both lending operations as well as analytical and advisory services. This change is a testament to Olivier Mahul (who leads the Crisis and Disaster Risk Finance agenda at the World Bank Group) and other leading technical experts who have shepherded this program over the years. This mainstreaming of financial resilience is by far the most significant change that has taken place.


Q: What project excites you the most right now?  

The project I'm most excited about is the 'Access to Finance for Recovery and Resilience' project in Rwanda, where we're establishing a bridge lending facility to strengthen the resilience of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs). The country's economy heavily relies on MSMEs and agriculture, placing the vulnerable exposed to floods, droughts, and landslides. Compounding this challenge, MSMEs in Rwanda face significant challenges when it comes to accessing credit, a crucial financial tool to invest in and grow a business. The bridge lending window seeks to address these challenges — in the event of a climatic shock impacting an MSME, it can apply for short-term liquidity loan (a ‘bridge loan’) to support its cash flow during the difficult period. Once conditions return to normal after the shock, the MSME then repays the loan. The bridge loan serves as a form of risk financing, preventing MSMEs defaulting/going out of business. This innovative solution is the first of its kind to be formally implemented through a World Bank lending operation. We're proud to support the Government of Rwanda lead the implementation of the bridge lending window, a critical tool to promote financial resilience for small businesses.


Q: Which of your achievements would you say you are most proud of?

The biggest achievement I contributed to is the vibrant, innovative, and wide-reaching DRF agenda in Africa. When I joined the Bank, there was no financial resilience work in Africa. Now, we have engagements in around 25 countries with some of the most innovative projects globally! Taking a moment to look back, I can see how working collectively, with a wide range of specialists, we have grown this portfolio in the Africa region in the last 10 years.


Q: Who do you look up to, for inspiration, in the field of DRF?

There’s a long list! Olivier Mahul, the godfather of financial resilience whose passion, technical expertise, and innovative ideas have been a constant inspiration. Julie Dana, a former manager, colleague and current friend who taught me how to broaden my work program and think strategically. Sam Maimbo, who through his leadership and art (yes art!), reminds me why I do what I do. Our inspirational female leaders from the Africa region, such as Marie-Francoise and Idah, who demonstrate how to get results through their passion, tenacity, and client engagement. Finally, I must also mention my manager, Douglas Pearce who I deeply admire. Despite the heavy workload and demanding role, I have thrived under his leadership, guidance and support. 


Q: How do you manage your personal and professional life?

This is a real challenge, especially for me as a father of two young boys who demand a lot (all?!) of my attention. Honestly, getting them to school in the morning is the hardest thing I do every day (but of course I wouldn't have it any other way). Balancing work and family life can be tough, but I've learned that organization and prioritization are key. I keep my calendar up to date, furiously compile and complete to do lists, find and identify resources to bring in needed support, and brutally assess my work program to ensure I keep focus on the most impactful tasks. I'm also deeply grateful to have a supportive wife (who has a great career herself!) with whom I share the responsibilities of parenting. Outside of work, I'm passionate about staying active and healthy. Exercise is my go-to for keeping focused. I try to swim, run, or cycle as often as possible. In fact, I completed a triathlon in 3 hours and 10 minutes back in 2017, and the year before that I won a novice half-triathlon at Luray. It's important to me to keep up with my fitness goals, as they help me maintain a healthy work-life balance and keep me calm in a hectic life.


Q: Can you share something about yourself that not many may know?

In 2017, I won the Mid-Atlantic Beard and ‘Stache Championship trophy! My wife and I had taken a 6-month break to travel and work as volunteers with refugees in the Middle East. Throughout this time, I didn’t trim my beard, so it was massive by the time we were back in America. I entered the competition as a joke and ended up winning! 


Q: Finally, could you tell us about the book club you co-founded?

Five years back, I co-founded a book club with colleagues in my then team, which remains vibrant today. We’ve read 40 books, spanning fiction, non-fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, biographies, murder mysteries, and everything in between. It’s been an enriching and enjoyable process; I’ve read books that I would usually not even consider!


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