PHOTO: PORTER GIFFORD
In 1990 the Indian government said it would set aside some government jobs for lower-caste citizens, leading to widespread student protests and violence, including self-immolations. In the relative peace of the classroom, Rohini Pande, a second-year undergraduate economics student at Delhi University, argued that people should get jobs based on merit, not through special treatment.
A new experience two years later transformed her position. After coming of age as a member of India’s privileged elite, she found herself an outsider at the University of Oxford, though she was there as a prestigious Rhodes scholar.
“There was a distinct hierarchy between those from the United States and those from Asia and Africa,” Pande says in a video interview. “Scholars from poorer countries came to Oxford for a high-quality education not available in their home country, while for many American scholars it was just a two-year break before they returned to elite US universities.”
This imbalance compelled Pande to think more deeply about fairness, and she now saw the plight of India’s lower castes from the perspective of disadvantage, she says.
“Like many born into privilege, it took me a long time to recognize what privilege meant,” she says. This experience has reverberated through her career as she has sought to understand the role of institutions in people’s lives.
Pande, 49 years old, is “one of the most influential development economists of her generation,” according to the American Economic Association, and has made groundbreaking contributions to political economy, international development, gender economics, anti-corruption, and efforts to combat climate change.
“Running through her work is an insistence not simply to ask what will work to improve the lives of the poor, but why it works, and what this teaches us about how institutions should be structured and how we should view the world,” says Charity Troyer Moore, Yale’s director for South Asia economics research.
In 2019, Pande was named the Henry J. Heinz II Professor of Economics at Yale University and director of the Economic Growth Center. She spent the previous 13 years as a senior professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. There she co-founded Evidence for Policy Design, which works with developing economy governments to address policy problems. Pande won the 2018 Carolyn Shaw Bell Award for furthering the status of women in economics.