Sarthak Agrawal on Interning at the World Bank in Washington D.C.
The World Bank Group HQ in Washington DC is probably the biggest and surely the most impressive office building I have ever been to. When you enter the lobby, you are greeted by the words ‘Our dream is a world free of poverty’ etched on the wall in front of you, while flags of the 189 member countries adorn the landscape on your left. On my first morning in the internship, I could barely hold back my excitement as I looked around the Offices. All my past work had centered on development in India where I had been fortunate to work in the highest policy making institutions in the country. However, the scale and reach of the World Bank were unparalleled. Furthermore, I was keen on studying the development challenges of other countries and regions and learn more about how the Bank goes about its mission of ending poverty. I wasn’t disappointed on either of these counts.
During my internship, I worked with economists in the Finance, Competitiveness and Innovation global practice on a chapter for an upcoming IMF book on the macroeconomics of fragile countries. The World Bank was requested to contribute a chapter on private sector development in fragile and conflict-affected regions, and co-authoring this paper was to be my main responsibility. Admittedly, I was curious about why the World Bank was writing a chapter for an IMF publication. I soon understood that a close synergy exists between these two institutions. For example, employees from either organization have full access to the other’s buildings (of which there are many). I often visited the IMF library, which tended to be more up-to-date on the latest economics books and talked to several people at the Fund about their work.
My work was intensive as it involved plenty of literature review, assembling and analysing large data sets. The project was particularly rewarding because it gave me an important new insight; growing up in India, which despite all its challenges has a strong state weaved in a democratic polity, and faces little concerns of rampant insecurity and conflict, I had become less appreciative of how important these assets were. My time on the project showed that many countries have not been nearly as fortunate.
It was at the Bank that I finally understood the marginal value of a successful intervention. I was pleased to know that the World Bank, in accordance with a similar understanding, had begun to prioritise fragile and conflict-affected countries in its lending portfolio. Luckily, I was working with people who also had extensive experience in the Bank’s lending operations. During many lunch-time conversations in the beautiful Lafayette Square, overlooking the White House, I learnt about the life-cycle of a World Bank loan; how progress is monitored through frequent missions by Bank professionals, and the kinds of challenges which project leaders have faced in the past while working with different governments.
In hindsight, I must also say that I was humbled by the importance accorded to an intern like me. On my very first morning, I had a private office, a workstation and an email ID set up within an hour of my arrival. I was invited to formal group events and made to feel like an important member of the unit despite what was to be a short stint with them. I realised that although the World Bank is a global public sector unit, its day-to-day workings are like a big private firm.
Besides my work at the Bank, I was most fascinated by the interesting people I met. One of them was a brilliant young American economist trained at Harvard, working in the Bank’s prestigious development economics group, who was enthusiastic about ‘all things related to India’. He had a life-size photograph of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (architect of the Indian constitution) in his office. In general, I never failed to be amazed by how humble and helpful the people were, and how they could easily take out time to guide me in my work and my career.
In addition to housing international financial institutions, DC is also home to the headquarters of the world’s best think tanks. During my time there, I visited the Centre for Global Development to witness the publication of one of their flagship reports and returned very impressed with the technical rigour as well as the policy relevance of their work. Another idiosyncratic feature of the city was its free museums, generously funded by the Smithsonian institution. I made full use of this opportunity; visiting each museum and art gallery at least twice. The highlight of my sightseeing expeditions was the U.S. Capitol building. A government enthusiast myself, and as someone who has followed American politics for many years now, it was a memorable experience to visit the Senate and House chambers, explore the magnificent galleries built for tourists, and experience two equally spectacular nearby institutions- the U.S. Supreme Court and the Library of Congress (of which I am now a member!).
New York, New York
During a long break around the 4th of July holiday, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in New York City. NYC was in many ways different from DC; it was bigger, busier and never quiet. While in New York, I saw my first Broadway musical; gazed out from the top floor of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere; and visited the iconic Hayden planetarium for a physics lesson from none other than renowned American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has been the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City since 1996. Although his narration was enchanting, the effort I had to expend on understanding the bare minimum of content, convinced me that moving from physics to economics was the wisest decision I ever made.
My internship has since ended and I have returned to compete my graduate studies at Oxford. However, in December, during a conference at the Blavatnik School of Government, I will have an opportunity to present my co-authored paper to many economists whose work I admire. One of them is Professor Daren Acemoglu of MIT, whom I heard at this year’s Annual Bank conference on Development Economics (ABCDE) where he spoke about his latest book. Even though it has been a couple of months since the internship ended, my excitement, enthusiasm and engagement with the Bank still continue.
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