Speeches & Transcripts

Commencement Speech at University of Virginia by World Bank Managing Director and COO Sri Mulyani Indrawati

May 21, 2016

World Bank Managing Director and COO Sri Mulyani Indrawati University of Virginia Batten School of Public Policy and Leadership, Charlottesville, VA , United States

As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you Dean Stam for this kind introduction.

Let me start by congratulating the class of 2016! You worked very hard to get here, so enjoy this [rainy] and wonderful day. A big hello also to the faculty, the parents, relatives, and friends – and a big thank you for supporting these graduates in the important field of public policy and leadership.

It is an honor to be part of this wonderful occasion at such a great school that cares so deeply about public policy and leadership. 

At the World Bank our goal is to end poverty by 2030 and to promote shared prosperity. So I focus more on global policy issues, particularly in developing countries.

Given the current environment, we at the World Bank worry a lot about the global economy, and how low commodity prices, and slow trade are affecting the poor. How can we promote equality for girls and women to give everyone a chance to fulfill their potential? How can we prevent conflict and ease the lives of refugees? And how can we generate economic growth while stopping climate change?

But covering all this will take too long. And I know you all have parties to go to. So I would rather share with you a few insights from the world of policymaking – your future profession, opportunities, and also the challenges you may face.

One thing you should always remember is that the most important word in ‘public policy’, is ‘public.’ In other words, it is the people you will affect through your work and the choices you make.

You may not see this yet, but this is the key to your future work, particularly in a more and more complex world where public policy transcends traditional boundaries.

When I graduated, public policy was all about government, but today you will enter a world full of many more options. You can work for NGOs, for civil society organizations, for the media. Or you can join the private sector or development institutions like ours.

But it is important to keep in mind that whatever you do as a public policymaker, it is going to affect the wellbeing of many people.

But who is the public? And what are the issues they care about?

Every generation has policy issues based on their concerns and the context they live in.

My generation, the so called Generation X, was very concerned about the possibility of war against the backdrop of a nuclear arms race. Economically, we dealt with stagnation and inflation, causing the scarcity of goods and high unemployment. Globalization was still in its very early stages. China only started to develop and Ethiopia experienced frequent famines. Telecommunication was limited and very expensive. – I remember when I did my PhD in Illinois, I was very homesick. I used more than half of my stipend so I could call my family in Indonesia only once a month. 

Your generation, on the other hand, is still at the tail end of the financial crisis of 2009. But China is now the second largest economy in the world and Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing in Africa. You have to handle abundance and figure out how to create meaningful livelihoods in a post-industrial world, where technology creates unlimited possibilities and communication is fast, cheap or even for free.

You are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and your security concerns are different from ours. They are asymmetrical, unpredictable, and a lot more complex. You face small violent groups that are creating havoc and cause human suffering and defy the normal definition of state.  

But regardless of whether you are generation X, Y, or Z: People – or the public – across generations want the same things: they want prosperity and dignity, they want equality of opportunity, and they want justice and security.

The only thing that changes is their context.

So what is different for your generation?

In this multi-polar world, we are all connected. Globalization has made the world a lot smaller.  In this global village, people, businesses, capital, technology, information and knowledge are spreading regardless of time zones and boundaries.

Today, all of us have access to instant information from a smartphone. With data practically at everyone’s fingertip. No country is no longer truly isolated - no matter how much some governments want to insulate themselves from the global public.

In fact, you are the generation that is living through the democratization of knowledge.

But the irony is that with more access to more information than ever, people have not become more open-minded. Your generation’s challenge is not the availability and accessibility of information, but the choices you make when you seek it out. It has become a lot easier to confirm one’s own assumptions and stereotypes by blending out the other side. It now takes more effort to reach across the lines of division and understand the people one doesn’t agree with.  

This plays into the hands of populists who shout louder, who see all problems as black and white, who exploit fears and offer magic solutions to complex issues. This is making your job as policymakers so much more challenging.

For you as future policy makers and future leaders this means that your ‘public’ is more impatient and people get angry quickly, because expectations are high and they want delivery as fast as an instant message.

So what does it take to become a good policy maker? 

First, technical competence is non-negotiable for you to take informed decisions. Together with good judgment, it helps you understand the trade-off, the merit and demerit of your decisions.  But, most importantly, it allows you to identify winners and losers and how to address their issues.

Even if you are convinced of the quality of you policy, not everyone will benefit immediately. This is true for every country whether rich, middle-income or low-income. It affects people’s lives in very real ways.

And just because your policy makes sense and the numbers add up, it doesn’t mean it works. In fact, you will see that rarely in life you can choose between the best and the second best option. Sometimes even the third best option is out of reach.

When I was a finance minister, Indonesia like many other countries was affected by the global financial crisis. Commodity prices dropped, and as an oil producer and open economy, we were close to economic collapse. There were corrupt officials and powerful interest groups who benefited from the status quo and tried to undermine every effort to reform our country and rebuild confidence.

Not every problem may have this proportion, but when crisis stares you in the face, the least bad option may be all you have. Because reality is actually very different from what you find in text books. It is full of people who have emotions, expectations, attitudes and competing interests – not all in support of a solid reform.

So dealing with trade-offs may be the most difficult part of your career – perhaps of your life. There may be people who lose out, even with good reforms, at least temporarily, because you didn’t have the luxury of a perfect outcome. How will you explain this to them? How will you compensate them? And will they listen and understand in a complex world where endless information is competing for their attention?

To answer these questions, you need the best technical expertise not just within yourself, but in your team.

But you also need to be inclusive and transparent.

People need to sit at the table. They deserve respect and dignity and their voices must be heard. Remember without them you won’t achieve legitimate results.

In the field of public policy, even more so in a position of leadership, your success is defined solely by how the people who are affected by your work are doing. Their success is your success.

This brings me to my final point, leadership.  Given the complexity of the issues you are dealing with and knowing that the public’s wellbeing is at stake, taking decisions in public policy is never easy nor is it simple.

You need to show empathy. You need to truly understand people’s hearts and minds. You need to be able to convince them that the reform is needed and success is possible. You need to have courage of conviction, be dedicated, and driven by a strong sense of integrity. 

But leadership also means the ability to differentiate between facts and evidence on the one side and bias and subjectivity on the other. It means managing every process inclusively and making choices wisely and responsibly, no matter how hard they seem.  

In fact, the cost of change is often immediate, but success can be delayed and people may not remember your contribution by the time it arrives.

If this sounds still interesting to you, you are right for the job.

So what final guidance can I give you?

Always choose what is in the best interest of the public. It ultimately will make you a better human being too. Sometimes, not everyone will appreciate your decision. Some may misunderstand your actions. And others even misrepresent it.

But if you act with full integrity and without compromising on fairness, and if you act with honesty, humility and respect for the dignity of people, you always come out as a winner. 

So no matter whether you hold public office, work for a private company, an NGO or civil society organization – and no matter whether you are an entry-level, a mid-level professional, or an executive – nothing will beat integrity and the value of your dignity.

With this, I want to congratulate you once again. Good luck for the future you are going to build for yourself, your generation and those that will come after you.

Thank you.