Trained as an engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, Sebastian James knew he wanted a career that would allow him to have an impact. “That was my fundamental goal,” he said. “I wanted to have a role in the public space.”
James passed the civil service exam and spent six years as a tax auditor for the Indian Revenue Service. He later worked at the Indian Ministry of Finance, specializing in tax policy. He wanted to study more in this area, so he entered a dual program at Harvard University, allowing him to study international tax at Harvard Law School and earn a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
His years in government offices in India had given him a practical foundation for tax policy, but graduate school allowed him to study its theoretical frameworks. “I liked it so much that I applied for the Ph.D. and continued at Harvard in public policy,” he said. “My research was on tax policy in developing countries.”
Experience with the World Bank
While completing his doctoral degree, he was invited to work with a professor who was consulting with the World Bank in Rwanda. After that assignment came others; after completing his Ph.D., he formally joined the World Bank. Over the past 15 years, he has traveled to 86 countries, supporting more than 45 of them on tax reform.
James said his favorite part of his job at the World Bank was working with government officials, trying to solve the puzzle of designing fair taxation systems and collecting taxes. As an example, he cited Sierra Leone – a country that was emerging from an 11-year civil war. “They were trying to rebuild. They had some basic questions: How do we get started? What can we do right away? What will give us some revenue that will allow us to start spending and rebuilding our country?” he said. “I’ve worked in countries that have gone through difficult times. For me, the biggest satisfaction is working with those countries because they really need the help.”
And often, being an effective advisor meant being willing to maintain dialogue with officials – over emails and Zooms, in formal meetings, but in less formal conversations. “Most of the help they need is not in the form of reports,” he said. “I remember a case when I was having a coffee with a government official in Freetown (Sierra Leone), and I gave some advice, something that had worked elsewhere. I came to them the next time, and I found out they actually implemented some of my suggestions, which I gave over a cup of coffee. It can be as simple as that because they know the local environment, but they just need fresh ideas.”
Good tax policy is practical and efficient, James said. “Efficiency means it should not make people suddenly change their behaviors too much because that will be to the detriment of what you’re trying to do,” he said. “You want to collect revenue, but you don’t want to do so in a manner that will stop people doing the activity that is generating the revenue in the first place.”
Highlights of Teaching
Teaching students as a professor of the practice will be similar to giving advice to government officials, he said. The theory is helpful, but practical advice is vital.
“The advantage of working with government officials, people on the ground, is they want practical solutions,” James said. “They want to know what actually worked, and they need examples. Theoretical frameworks are important, no doubt. You need to provide a theoretical framework that underlies the practical advice you’re giving. In the case of students, it’s helpful for them to learn the current practices because they will need them to find a job.”
Joining the faculty at Sanford will allow James to publish his research and opinions, he said. His writings for the World Bank often had restrictions placed on it, given the confidentiality between advisers and the government being advised. “After my last day at the World Bank, my wife asked me, how do you feel? And I said, I feel free,” he recalled. “The academic environment gives me the freedom to write, to be able to think about different things, to talk about different things. That is one of the primary reasons I joined Duke.”
The academic environment gives me the freedom to write, to be able to think about different things, to talk about different things. That is one of the primary reasons I joined Duke.