Dr. Balu
Dr. Ramaswami Balasubramaniam (Dr. Balu)

Dr. Ramaswami Balasubramaniam (Dr. Balu) is a development scholar, author, public policy advocate, and leadership trainer. After spending 26 years in pioneering development work among rural and tribal people, he pursued academic degrees in leadership, organizational development, and public policy. He was the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor at Cornell University from 2012–14, and continues to hold academic positions in Cornell and other universities. He is currently the full time Member-HR in the Capacity Building Commission of the Government of India.

On Friday, October 27, Dr. Balu visited the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy to connect with Provost of the University of Chicago and Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris, Katherine Baicker, Professor in Economics and 2019 Nobel Prize Winner Michael Kremer, Senior Associate Dean Ranjan Daniels, Director of the Harris Policy Labs Carol Brown, Chief Operating Officer and Senior Associate Dean, Business Operations Misho Ceko, Interim Dean and Sydney Stein Professor Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Assistant Professor Amir Jina, Executive Director of the Development Economics Center Benjamin Krause, Director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago Sam Ori, and Elise and Jack Lipsey Professor Scott Gelbach. Amidst this packed agenda, Dr. Balu insisted upon having lunch with students—a rare opportunity for future policy leaders.  “I’m very keen on understanding how the policy world is adapting to teaching,” said Dr. Balu.

students around conference table listening to dr balu
Students in conversation with Dr. Balu

During lunch, Dr. Balu was joined by PhD Candidate Rohen Shah, first year MPP students Ishan Gupta and Claire Fan, and second year MPP students Aiswarya Sivaramakrishnan, Shimul Goel, Amartya Sinha, and Sanya Srivastava. The students shared their interests, which varied from international development to agriculture to education technology to impact evaluation in health policy.

Dr. Balu shared his career trajectory with the attendees, describing how he started as a physician, but became a civil society activist. “There was no such word for social activist in my day: we were only seen as troublemakers.” He went on to tell how he was invited to join the Capacity Building Commission as the Member-HR and how impressed he was with the Prime Minister’s call for Janabhagidhari—a citizen centric approach to Governance.

In his role working for the Indian Capacity Building Commission, he has worked to build State capacity to enhance performance, transparency and accountability of the public sector to deliver on social outcomes. “I believe in compassionate capitalism—combining the best of the public and private sectors—perhaps a new economic model itself.”

Balu emphasized the importance of systems and design thinking when it comes to policymaking. “It's very binary to see things from what we are passionate about, but once you see it from a systems perspective, you can work within the complexity of a given ecosystem and the complexity of introducing government programs like organizations and institutions.”

“I’m also interested in how emerging technologies can make governance more responsive and citizen centric,” Balu said. Dr. Balu noted, “we can’t just make technology solve all our problems. We need policy schools to humanize policy in the face of these technological advancements. “And that's why education is so important: we need to figure out how we add value to what technology does.”

He said one of his most challenging tasks is getting academics and practitioners to communicate. “I used to be an emotional activist out there fighting. But today I'm a collaborative activist building evidence alongside others… We have to find solutions together, and evidence is the way to do it—and that's why I like Harris’s slogan, Social Impact, Down to a Science.”

Dr Balu with students
Dr. Balu with students after lunch

This post has been edited for length and clarity.