Funds for the future

How an international education helped inspire a world-renowned economist.

As one of the first people in the world to study the IB Diploma Programme, at the International School of Geneva in 1971, you would expect Shanta Devarajan to be highly principled.What’s particularly inspiring is just how he has put those principles into practice, working to end extreme poverty in some of the most deprived parts of the world.

Shanta joined the World Bank in 1991 after receiving his undergraduate degree from Princeton and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

He is now the bank’s Chief Economist in Africa, which brings him a set of seemingly intractable challenges. “We’re trying to end poverty in a sustainable way,” says Shanta.

“How do you get Africa on a sustainable growth trajectory? It’s not just a question of giving money, it’s figuring out ways to create employment. I have worked on this for many years.”

Poverty reduction was not always Shanta’s focus in the field of economics. By the late 1990s he had written or co-authored a wealth of academic publications on subjects spanning economics, trade policy and natural resources. Despite his success, he felt that he could do more.

“Something in me snapped,” he says. “I felt so privileged – I’d gone to the best schools and had exciting and rewarding jobs. It was time for me to give back a bit. I decided to dedicate the rest of my career to ending poverty.

Fortunately, I’m in a position at the World Bank where I can make some change in Africa.” Shanta admits that the academic challenge still excites him: “It’s that combination of dealing with an intellectual problem and doing something rewarding.

You’re helping people in the world who need the most help. Having worked most of my professional life in Africa I feel very at home there.” Shanta’s experience studying at the United Nations International School in New York and later in Geneva, prepared him well for his career: “It’s easy for me to work in this area.

When I moved from a multinational classroom to a multinational office, there was almost no change.” In Geneva, Shanta was one of the first students chosen to study the Diploma Programme, but he wasn’t worried.

“There was a prestige thing – you had to be nominated to take the IB. So it was only students who the school felt would do well,” he says. Shanta has plenty of good memories from school. “It was the best time of my life,” he says.

“We had an English class that was full of debate. We’d come in and just go at each other about a book. We were encouraged to think critically and script our arguments. It was a great experience for lat er life.” Not only did the IB give Shanta early experience in critical thinking, it piqued his interest in a range of subjects.

“Only IB students got to study Theory of Knowledge, which I found fascinating,” he says. “It got me interested in philosophy.”

Shanta is due to retire from the World Bank in a few years, but still has big ambitions: “The logical thing would be for me to go back to academia, which is something I love. But I think I should do something bolder. One idea I had was starting an NGO with my colleagues in Africa. It would provide high-quality objective advice to decision-makers and African citizens. It’s an unusual thing to do, but the time might be right.”