The man who has steadied the legal tiller of the good ship ADB is leaving after seven years. He talks to John Church about the bank’s activities in India, its plans for governance reform and the challenges it faces

It is perhaps no coincidence that Chris Stephens, general counsel of the Asian Development Bank, is leaving as the bank stands on the cusp of some of the biggest reforms since its inception back in 1966. These changes are what Stephens has been working towards achieving, and as some major transitions begin, his part in the story is ending.

Stephens has for almost seven years overseen the legal responsibilities of this multilateral financial institution that has 68 member countries and operations that include close to 200 loans, investments and technical assistance projects in 42 countries across the Asia-Pacific worth more than US$30 billion a year.

The office of general counsel, apart from an office for law and policy reform, includes sovereign operations covering five sub-regions, not to mention non-sovereign operations, finance and funds, public private partnership (PPP) operations, and institutional and administration matters.

The sheer size of operations would make for grey hair for most counsel, but Stephens is wearing his seven years at the bank’s legal helm well for all that. From his office in ADB headquarters overlooking a busy Manila skyline, he is relaxed but never off focus on the business of the bank, and the role he has played within it.

There is much to consider. The bank is on the cusp of redefining its relationship with China. And India looms large on ADB books for the number of ongoing and upcoming projects.

Perhaps his greatest challenge, though, is what the general counsel has seen as an urgent need for change from within, the need for governance reforms within a leadership structure that has served well since the bank’s inception in 1966, but with the particular challenges of the early 21st century desperately needs an upgrade.

Easier said than done for a bank with 68 member states, 49 within and 19 outside the Asia-Pacific, all of which are represented on the board of governors, from whom 12 elected members form the board of directors. To say this could be a politically charged formula intolerant of change is an understatement, but nonetheless Stephens has tackled the issue head-on.

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