Senior economist Peter Brimble is enjoying his new nest at the Asian Development Bank
For Peter Brimble, expatriation is not a foreign concept. In fact, it’s a way of life for the 54-year-old who has spent the majority of his life out of his home country.
When he was nine, his family followed his father to Africa. After a stint at the Bank of Kenya, they packed their bags again and moved to Washington, where his father had a job at the International Monetary Fund. “My dad also studied economics and worked in the development field,” Brimble says. “Growing up, many people that I knew were development economists.”
Brimble returned to his hometown of London to study economics at the London School of Economics, but the call of the outside world proved too much to resist. After a fellowship in Belize, he settled permanently in Southeast Asia.
“I followed my wives,” Brimble says with a laugh when asked how his path led him first to Thailand in 1985 and then Cambodia. “My first wife was Thai. After she completed her PhD in England, she went back to Thailand, so I wanted to do something there,” he says. “And then my heart led me to Cambodia. My second wife is Khmer.”
Marrying curiosity about development with matters of the heart since the mid-80s, Brimble dedicated his PhD thesis to the performance of Thai manufacturing firms. “The first round of Japanese investments in automotive and consumer electronics began in the early 80s, but it was still really underdeveloped. It all took off in the late 80s,” he says.
Aligning himself with the entrepreneurial spirit of the times, Brimble created a business development and consultancy company now known as the Brooker Group.
The firm was the first to list on the stock exchange of Thailand’s Market for Alternative Investment in 2001. “We were scheduled to list on September 12. Following the attacks in New York, the markets closed and we had to postpone for a few days,” he recalled.
Being listed on the bourse was a proud moment for Brimble, but coping with the pressure of the financial markets and administrative requirements kept him away from his favourite part of the job – the hands-on running of the business.
The CEO ran out of steam and went on to create a small consulting company before moving to Cambodia, where he co-founded Leopard Capital in 2007, a private equity firm that he quickly left to set up another fund called Cambodia Emerald.
Pushing such a venture during the financial crisis was no easy task, and the firm eventually ran out of funds. “We had problems, but I learned a lot,” says Brimble. “We looked at 80 investment projects of all sizes and from different sectors. That was very useful for building a network here.”
The economist then returned to his true passion: development consulting for institutions such as the United Nations Development Programme and USAid. He joined the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in July 2010. His first task, which took him one year, was to supervise the Cambodia 2011-2013 Country Partnership Strategy.
In the coming months, he will develop a programme that aims to support economic growth while fighting against poverty.
Aware of the challenges of doing business in Cambodia, he believes people should place the country’s progress in a wider context. “This country has a very specific starting point that is quite unique.
When you wipe out your own economy like the Khmer Rouge did, it puts you back a long way. When I first came [to Cambodia] in 1992, no roads were paved and side streets were just mud,” he recalls.
He firmly believes Cambodia has a card to play in the region’s economic development. “Things are moving. The foreign companies that are now coming into Cambodia are exactly the same as those that came to Thailand 20 years ago.
Many of them are actually coming down the road from Bangkok or up the road from Ho Chi Minh,” he says, referencing microbreweries and Japanese manufacturing companies that are now joining the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone.
Cheap labour is not Cambodia’s only appeal to international business, he says, pointing out that IberAsia, the Spanish garment company, moved its production base from Bangladesh to Cambodia because of the quality of life and the superior workforce, not cost.
Asked about the relevance of gross domestic product as an indicator of a country’s well-being, he explains that the ADB also uses surveys that approximate the Millenium Development Goals indicators such as the poverty-gap ratio or the literacy rate.
Many have mulled the challenges of stimulating economic growth while simultaneously encouraging social change. It is a difficult marriage that Peter Brimble is happy to develop.