My story, my views: Sir Suma Chakrabati reflections on his career

10 Feb 15
From on-the-ground development in Botswana to the top spot at DFID and now the EBRD, Sir Suma Chakrabarti’s career has been rooted in a passion for deliverable development. Here, he looks back on his career and sets out his plans for the future

By the EY Editorial team | 27 January 2015

From on-the-ground development in Botswana to the top spot at DFID and now the EBRD, Sir Suma Chakrabarti’s career has been rooted in a passion for deliverable development. Here, he looks back on his career and sets out his plans for the future.

Development, for me, is always a glass half full. I had hoped that within my lifetime the glass would be completely full and while it looks like it might take a little longer than that, I can go back to places that I visited many years ago and today see huge progress. Poland is an extraordinary example of this. I first visited in 1990 and there was nothing in the shops and look at it now — utterly transformed — and the EBRD has ed facilitate this through the work it has done with the private sector.


I was born in a small town in the Himalayan foothills of North East India. I then spent the first five years of my life in Calcutta before my father went to Oxford for his PhD, which meant I ended up in the UK. I’ve been there ever since but there was a period in 1969 when I went back to India after my father had completed his studies. But I didn’t go to school for about six months because Calcutta at the time had been hit by a Maoist insurrection so schools and colleges were shut. I then went back to England with my mother, a school teacher, with the idea of returning to India after I had been to university. The plans changed, though, when I met my Japanese wife and the only place we could agree on living in was the UK.

My degree was in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University. I majored in economics as this reflected my long-held interest in development.

The first thing I did after leaving university was to go to Botswana to work for the country’s government as an economist. I had a fellowship for two years, so it was a tremendous chance to work for a developing country on the ground. When I look back at my time in Botswana, one of the first things I learned was that leadership really matters. Botswana is always held up as a great success story in Africa — and it is — because fundamentally it has had really good political leadership and good governance going back many years. The second thing I learned as part of the development experience was the realization that countries need to set very clear goals, and moreover, they need to hold the donors that are financing their projects to account. Botswana was rather good at not being pushed around by actually owning its development policy. They were the two big lessons I learned and these are themes that still resonate strongly today.

One other interest I developed in Botswana was how organizations work or don’t work and need reforming. So, international development and organizational reform have been the twin themes that have underpinned much of my career.

Moving up Whitehall’s ladder

I then returned to the UK and joined the British civil service to work for what is now the Department for International Development (DFID) but was then known as the Overseas Development Administration (ODA).

My work at the ODA in the 1980s was as an economist, focusing largely on Africa but also on South Asia. And then in 1988, I was approached by the UK Director at the World Bank and IMF to come to Washington, DC, and be one of his advisors. I did that for two years and it was great fun and definitely one of the best jobs I have ever had, along with my time in Botswana. I was lured back to the UK to work as private secretary to the Minister for Overseas Development — another great job — before being promoted.

In 1996, I went to the Treasury and from the following year onward, I ran the public expenditure side of this department. I suppose that was my other big break as it was there I came up with the idea of public service agreements (PSAs) which were driven by the need for greater government accountability to Parliament and citizens for the money it was spending. PSAs were about what departments were spending, what they were trying to achieve and they gave me a really good chance to look across Whitehall and see what works and what could work better. It also gave me a chance to develop my ideas about ownership, accountability and results.

I was then asked by Tony Blair, who was the prime minister at the time, to create the Performance and Innovation Unit which I did before moving on to run the economic and domestic secretariat at the Cabinet Office. But I wanted to go back to development — that was where my heart and head was. I was appointed to be Permanent Secretary at DFID, the most senior civil servant in the department, and this was in many ways a great time. We had an enormous agenda of change because under the International Development Secretary of State at the time, Clare Short, the department was becoming a real powerhouse, not just in Whitehall but also globally. The two things I was trying to do was to Clare and the department become a major force in international development, which it did become, and the second priority was to become a model of a well-run organization. I was very pleased when DFID came top in the first round of capability reviews — which assessed all departments against a model of capability to identify progress and next steps — as it showed the staff that we could, together, really make the department work well.

I was in that role for nearly six years before transferring across to the Ministry of Justice to be its new permanent secretary. I was really brought in for managerial leadership as opposed to my knowledge of the justice system. The Government wanted an outsider’s perspective as there were so many vested interests in the justice system. Along with many talented colleagues, we implemented a successful change program called “Transforming Justice” and it was from this role that I was asked if I would be interested in competing for the job of EBRD President.

To the EBRD

The EBRD Presidential election in May 2012 was historic, the first time ever there had been a proper competition for the job. Having five candidates competing with their own manifestos, with each of us being interviewed by the Center for Global Development, for example, and then having to go to hearings in front of shareholders and make our case was a real step in the right direction as it was a very rigorous experience. I think it was good for the organization and good for the international system as a whole.

When I arrived at the EBRD in July 2012, I had my manifesto for things I wanted to do but of course I spent the first few weeks trying to understand what the staff in the organization thought we should be trying to change. We set up 12 task forces looking at various things and by that Christmas they had completed their work and we had an agenda for change. I still had certain high-level priorities. For example, I felt that diversity and inclusion should be a much bigger feature of what EBRD does internally and in our projects. It was the staff who designed the processes going forward and we’re now well underway. I think it is very important for leaders to give space to staff. Leaders should set strategy and vision — but not micromanage the lower level details. I’ve also made it a priority to get out and about as much as possible. This is partly my own style: what keeps me sane in any job is seeing the impact of our programs and activities firsthand. So, it gives me great pleasure to go to countries that we operate in and see, on the ground, how our projects are progressing, what the policy issues are and what the leaders of those countries are prioritizing.

A good example is going to Ukraine and meeting companies that we supported, and being advised by one of their managers that the EBRD should be tougher on the government in a country where there is so much corruption, so much interference and so much corporate raiding. I felt emboldened enough to repeat this message on television and, face-to-face, with the country’s then president that this can’t go on and we would be reducing our activities accordingly. Improvements didn’t happen under that president’s watch and so we did reduce our programs but now we are increasing them again and moving ahead with an anti-corruption initiative in support of a reformist government.

Our whole approach was driven by what we were hearing on the ground. It demonstrates the importance of empowering and actually listening to what countries are trying to say. They have a far better feel for what they need than an outsider has. In our case, we’re not just talking about governments, we’re talking about companies that we work with in those countries as they have a deep insight on what’s actually happening.

Blending the public and private

Despite offers, I’ve never yet been tempted to work in the private sector. I think the knottiest problems that any society faces are related to public policy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they need public sector solutions. Indeed, while being in the UK civil service, my role included privatizations and developing private sector provision of public services. The lack of direct private experience is not a downside in my current role, as my job is not about being an experienced banker. It is more focused on setting the strategic direction with shareholders. To be honest, having been the head of a major government department is quite good training for the job of EBRD president and it’s not surprising that my predecessors all share public sector backgrounds.

My career has given me huge exposure to policymakers — both in the UK and internationally. I like ministers who set strategic vision and who will then take on the vested interest groups that seek to block change for the better. These two characteristics are hugely important in delivering transformational change. Ministers in the UK Government like Clare Short and Ken Clarke — big beasts who are not frightened of their shadows and are willing to tell it as it is. They also set clear end goals for their strategies. Both of them felt their job stopped at that level and it was my job to lead the implementation. There are people like that across the regions I now work in.

At the EBRD, our work is often about re-energizing transition in countries where reforms have stalled. Prime Minister Massimov of Kazakhstan is a role model in that respect, as is Poland’s Prime Minister Tusk and Jordan’s Prime Minister Ensour. I could go on but these are people who have really impressed me. They all expect us to be thinking about how we can their countries. It’s not my job just to go in there and say “I’m really proud of all the projects the EBRD has delivered for you” but also it’s about listening and understanding their agenda for their country’s future. So, start with humility — it’s their country and their people — listen to what they have to say and then come in with ideas about how to .

If you ask me…

There is nothing better than to see 20 years later how a place that was in the doldrums has completely changed. I can say this about a number of places but I remember when I was 10 and visiting Calcutta. It was almost a Hieronymus Bosch-style painting of poverty and degradation. I go back now, and while there are still too many poor people, the situation has vastly improved. So, if you’re considering a career in development, believe in yourself, believe in the mission as it is really worth doing and never give up. There are lots of things you need to be resilient about, but only a few roles are more worthwhile.

This feature was first published in the December edition of EY's Dynamics magazine 

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