Sir Suma Chakrabarti (Class of 1976)

Sir Suma Chakrabarti was at City of London School from 1970 to 1976. After a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University and a Masters in Development Economics at Sussex University, Sir Suma has gone on to a long and distinguished career in public service, specialising in international development and public service reform. In 2002, Sir Suma became, at 42, the then youngest-ever Permanent Secretary, as the head civil servant at the Department for International Development. He took the same role at the Ministry of Justice from 2007-2012 and went on to serve as president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for eight years until last July.

Can you tell us about your current roles?

I advise the Presidents of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on economic development, governance and international cooperation. It’s a pretty wide remit. I am also chair of the Overseas Development Institute, Britain’s premier development think tank, and I’m sitting on two commissions: a WHO commission on the economic effects of the pandemic; and the Commission for Smart Government, looking at how we can improve governance in the UK. These projects take up most of my time but I have a heap of smaller things I do as well, including some writing.

How did you come to be a pupil at City?

The headmaster at my C of E primary school in Earl’s Court suggested to my mother that I try out for a ILEA scholarship at City.

We had lived in England since I was five but then we had all gone back to India when I was 10, after my father finished his PhD at Oxford. But then there was a Maoist rebellion going on in my part of India and schools and colleges were closed for a long time. My parents decided it was best if I came back to school in England with my mother. So I came back, did the last year of primary school and got into City.

I had planned to go back to India after University. My father had even sent me the application forms for the Indian civil service and I didn’t apply because I’d just met my Japanese girlfriend – now my wife – and the UK was the only place we thought we could live together.

Which teachers inspired you at City?

My first form teacher was also our maths teacher, Brian Millo, who was also a good cross country runner. I had a real interest in History, English and Economics. Nobby Clark, my first English teacher, was a great teacher. He was funny and warm-hearted and he put you at your ease. In sixth form, Jonathan Keates taught me English. Of the history teachers, I remember David Ward and Lionel Knight well. Lionel knew my parents quite well: in his spare time, he worked on Indian history and my father was also a historian.

Frank Gregory, who taught me both rugby and economics, took me to Homerton Hospital when I broke my arm playing rugby. He stayed with me all afternoon while they reset it, so he has a special place in my memory too.

Was rugby your main extra-curricular activity?

I played in the first team for football and cricket, as well as rugby. I loved playing sport on Wednesday afternoons and then the matches on Saturdays. I carried on playing football until my early 40s, until injury and age caught up with me.

At what point did you decide what sort of career you wanted to pursue?

I had an interest in economic development from quite a young age, partly because of my Indian background. When we went back to India briefly in 1969, I remember the main railway station in Calcutta being full of very poor people lying on top of each other. That image stayed with me. Then, studying history was very important in our family and I liked writing. I gravitated towards the arts and humanities. I owe City, like many other pupils who have been there, the ability to argue a case both on paper and verbally. We were very well grounded in our ability to write and argue a case.

Which public figures do you remember visiting the School?

The one I remember most is the now-late [Dame] Diana Rigg. She came to our School when I was about 14. Nobby Clark had somehow managed to invite her. Of course, we all fancied her. But she was also amazingly interesting about life in the theatre and life as an actor. We could relate to her because we’d all seen her in the Avengers. It was a great moment!

Are you still in touch with friends from school?

Four of us have stayed in touch. Three of us started on the same day in the same class in 1970. I first met Aidan Goodman even earlier, at Gamages, when we were there with our mums on the same day buying the uniform – and we’ve stayed good friends ever since. I still meet up – or now, Zoom - with Aidan – and Chris Torrible and Max Hotopf- every few months.

What culture did City bring to you that was different to other schools?

It’s a day school, a London school and a cosmopolitan school. Its pupils came from the professional classes, so there were not many really rich kids or very few. It had the beginnings of a greater diversity of intake. There were three non-white kids in my first class of 30 students which was quite high at the time compared to the more traditional public schools. It was a school that was open to many faiths and that made quite a difference. When we got to university we would notice people who had come through a much narrower background.

What was your first experience of work?

I had a paper round when I was a boy and, after that, I had two jobs that came via school friends – I washed up after banquets at the Bank of England sports ground every Friday evening and I also had  a job as a lift operator and toilet cleaner in a couple of City firms. That was awful first thing in the morning, cleaning the toilets, but the rest of the day wasn’t so bad. You could read novels sitting in the lift, plus it was well enough paid for me to buy a nice stereo at the end of the summer. So, it had its upsides.

Over your many roles in international development, is there one project that you look back on with particular pride?

In recent times, one that I am most proud of is a solar power plant in Benban in Upper Egypt. It has hugely increased Egypt’s renewable energy capacity. It’s good for the environment, but I’m also proud of the way it worked – the EBRD refused to be involved initially because we didn’t think the government was serious about implementing the right regulatory framework for investors. We worked with them to create the right framework and that worked really well. It turned out that there was huge interest from foreign investors in this project.

The project brought a lot of employment to a very poor part of Egypt. It is already the largest solar plant in Africa and possibly the world. It’s been very important for Egypt and the whole region.

Is there a general misconception about international development that frustrates you?

The phrase, ‘Charity begins at home’.  It’s demeaning and actually racist to think of it as “charity”. Even if you are a Brit that mouths that phrase, remember the economic growth of these poorer countries is an opportunity for British firms and investors and a chance to create British jobs. It’s a positive even for those who think they are not interested in development but are worried about migration or national security. As these countries develop, there will be fewer migrants coming to the UK – and the more secure we will be from terrorism, too.

I still think too many people see development as primarily a moral issue. That’s fine as a way of entering the debate: feeling that everyone deserves a fair shake at life. When I saw that Calcutta station as a child, I just thought it was unfair that anyone should have to live like that when I didn’t. But I think it’s important to frame development as an economic opportunity for the world as a whole. It is in everyone’s interests that these countries do well.

Is working in Whitehall as a senior civil servant enjoyable on a day-to-day basis – or is it tough working in such an influential position?

It’s all of those things. It’s really enjoyable when you come up with a way to help the government of the day deliver its agenda. In my case, I came up with the idea of Public Service Agreements, a way of bringing improved public sector performance that the Blair government adopted. I still lecture at universities on that subject! That’s when it’s exciting and you can see the organisation you’re leading deliver on its objectives.

It can also be tough, though, when a major part of your workforce is unhappy about a policy they have to deliver. Trying to motivate my staff at the Department for International Development was very difficult during the Iraq War, for instance. At weekends, many of them must have been on the big anti-War marches in London, and then from Monday to Friday they were working very hard to deliver for the government. That was a very tough period.

On balance, you will be paid less in the public sector but it is a very satisfying job, because you are dealing with things that the private sector cannot solve.

Do you prefer working in a sector where you are steeped in the subject – or being thrown into the deep end, as you were when you went to head up the new Ministry of Justice? 

Setting up the Ministry of Justice was one of the first acts of Gordon Brown’s government in 2007. I was a running DFID at the time – 3500 people – and doing well, when I was asked to go and run this new organisation with 95,000 people! Why me? I wasn’t a lawyer and I’d never worked in the justice system at all but the Government wanted someone from outside the system, with no baggage and with leadership and management skills to come in and put the new ministry together.

At DFID, I had known as much about a subject as a subject specialist, but at the Ministry of Justice, you can imagine the head of the prison service thinking, ‘What the hell does this guy know about anything?’ So I spent a lot more time, trying to understand key issues almost from first principles. Every Friday I would go out of London to see a court, a tribunal, a prison, a probation office, whatever. I was never going to catch up enough but I wanted to be as literate in the subject matter and the issues as I could be.

How should current City pupils with the same interests as you approach their career differently to the way you did?

The one thing I’d encourage people to do is to choose their own path – don’t sit there waiting for things to happen. Be pro-active. Be creative. Come up with ideas. Many people imagine that civil servants just do what ministers tell them to do but the best bits of a Civil Service career - and a post-Civil Service career – is being creative: shaping ideas, coming up with new ones and having them adopted by the Government. City was good at shaping your character in that direction. It was always encouraging students to be creative and to think on their feet and it was good at giving you the tools to do that.