Forms of Imbalances in Our World Kanbur.jpg.jpeg

Kanbur approaches issues facing humanity, armed not only with theories but also with experience in the real world.
Beatrice Jin
Beatrice Jin


Kanbur wants to bring together many disciplines to look at different social problems, such as climate, labor, and gender issues.
Jason Koski (UPHOTO)
Jason Koski (UPHOTO)

Forms of Imbalances in Our World

by Lauren Cahoon Roberts

Two major issues face humanity: justice between the generations, and justice within the current generation, according to Ravi Kanbur, Applied Economics and Management. As a former Chief Economist for Africa at the World Bank, Director of the World Development Report, the Past-President of the Society for the Study of Economic Inequality, and ranked as one the top 0.5 percent academic economists in the world, Kanbur has the expertise to back up that diagnosis.

The Foundation of a Perspective

Kanbur’s professional and research focus has consistently centered around the causes and nature of inequality and poverty around the globe—a trajectory he credits to his Oxford graduate advisers, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, and James Mirrlees, all of whom went on to win the Nobel prize in economics. “They were and are the dominating influences of my view of economics,” says Kanbur. He has also been influenced by two other Nobel–prize-winning economists, Michael Spence and Elinor Ostrom, with whom he has coauthored academic papers.

An additional key influence in Kanbur’s professional life is the practical experience gained from positions of increasing responsibility in the operational branch of the World Bank. Over the span of a decade, Kanbur worked on the ground first in Ghana as Resident Representative and later as the Chief Economist for Sub-Saharan Africa. These positions gave Kanbur a stark look at the reality of how theoretical policies play out in the real world. “I was able to see the daily questions leaders were facing—I saw how one needed to take into account the economic or political constraints of the local policymakers, or else you might end up worse off than you started in the first place,” says Kanbur. “This is not to say we should give up on the discipline of economics, but to understand that we need to be much more nuanced in our application of our theories.”

The World Bank Experience

This work has influenced Kanbur’s thinking on how international development assistance should be structured. For example, when he first began working at the World Bank, the organization had a series of rigid conditionalities for countries that it gave money to. “There was a thought that you have to keep the country on a short leash,” he explains. “But our research and experience found that keeping these countries on a short leash doesn’t work. You need to let them make their own decisions.”

Kanbur explains that policymakers need a more nuanced understanding of a country before trying to address its problems.

More recently, Kanbur has focused on the graduation rule held by the World Bank, which requires that countries graduate from World Bank’s soft loan window once they reach a certain level of average income. Kanbur notes that 30 years ago, 90 percent of the world’s poor lived in low-income countries. Today, 75 percent live in a middle-income country, such as India. Their income is not very high, but high enough to be above the World Bank’s graduation threshold, yet they have hundreds of millions of poor people. “Now we face an issue of a country not being poor, but still a huge number of its people being poor,” says Kanbur. “India has more than 250 million poor people, but they are above the threshold. We need to help poor people, wherever they live.”

Climate Change Justice

Kanbur has also taken deep interest in the economic issues and policies around achieving climate change justice. This interest is where his concern for justice between generations and justice within the current generation focuses. “First, there is the issue of justice between the present and future generations—that is clearly out of kilter,” says Kanbur. “We’re using up resources too fast. We’re going to leave an unjustly low amount to future generations.” This issue is of keen interest to environmentalists and policymakers, but it interacts closely with another type of injustice. “Unfortunately, some of the policies that are proposed for mitigating climate change can have a negative impact on people living in our time,” he adds. “If you support biofuels, this pulls land away from food production, which pushes up the price of food, which hurts poor consumers. We have to be very careful in developing policies.” Kanbur is hoping to influence a more universally just approach to climate change policy in his role as a High Level Advisory Committee Member of the Climate Justice Dialogue, an initiative led by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and now the United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Change.

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Socio-Political Imbalances

Finally, Kanbur is lending his expertise as cochair of the International Panel on Social Progress, a project that aims to harness the expertise of thought leaders on social issues for a report to decision-makers and policymakers in order to inform them on key questions of social change. “The goal is to bring together many disciplines to look at different social problems, such as climate, labor, and gender issues,” says Kanbur. He believes that policymakers need to focus not only on income inequality but also on other forms of imbalance. “Economists think of inequality of income, that’s our usual measure, but it’s not good enough,” says Kanbur. “I’ve been making the argument that we need to go beyond these sorts of measures and look at social inequality as well.” Kanbur explains that policymakers need a more nuanced understanding of a country before trying to address its problems, citing the fact that in Ghana a huge socioeconomic divide exists between the (poorer) North and the (richer) South. But this divide isn’t random—the two parts of the country differ by religion, Islam in the North and Christianity in the South. Outsiders who hope to aid the country may look at income differences without understanding the full context of the situation, with the potential of enacting mismatched development programs that could go poorly. “Policy has to be aware of such regional and other socio-political imbalances,” Kanbur stresses.

This belief highlights Kanbur’s overarching approach to international economics, an approach that straddles both theory and policy, drawing from academic research and thinking but never losing sight of the practical realities faced by the people living in these developing regions. “My career and interests have spanned the spectrum,” says Kanbur. “I’m interested in pure theory but also in the down and dirty policy side of things.” Armed with this balanced approach, Kanbur continues to search out and understand the biggest issues facing humanity.