Following the recent completion of his PhD programme, alumnus and economist, Dr Felix Oppong, sets his sights at disseminating his work and building a stronger network of experts for the purpose of knowledge sharing. “My plan includes contributing to capacity building on the African continent in the area of tax policy. In the short term, I intend to publish my papers. I used innovative techniques to derive data and to run my models. These models could be replicated for the benefit of many countries and to guide policy decision making. I look forward to sharing my knowledge widely for the benefit of others,” he points out. Read more about his work at the Evaluation Group of the World Bank, his advice to PhD students and thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on international trade, among other things.
Q: Briefly summarise your career since graduating from UP, with special mention of specific highlights/milestones.
A: I have not changed jobs since graduating from UP. Currently, I am working with the Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank. The benefits of the PhD are not only at the end of the programme as it gave me the opportunity to progressively apply the new knowledge acquired throughout the period. This knowledge fed into the policy advice in my reports.
Before joining the World Bank, I worked as an economist in the Tax Policy Unit of the Ministry of Finance in Ghana. Thereafter, I moved to join the World Bank Group. While working as a country economist for the World Bank in Ghana, I used the knowledge from the programme to assist the government in broadening its tax base through a review of tax rates and exemptions in Ghana. Also, I applied this knowledge to prepare various analytical products. Currently, I provide policy advice through evaluative work at the Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank.
Q: To what extent did your studies at UP benefit you in your career and contribute to your success?
A: The PhD programme is good for those who want to sharpen their skills to advance their careers. In my case, it fed directly into my work programme and provided the resources and guidance I needed to excel.
The African Tax Institute (ATI) at UP provided me with direct mentorship through my supervisors who are excellent by all standards. I also benefited from visiting professors at ATI who provide technical advice, as well as guide students in their research and careers. Such guidance helped me to navigate difficult decisions and topics. In summary, it is fair to say ATI students get to work with various practitioners who understand the field and are achievers in their own right.
Q: Given your academic experience at UP, what advice can you pass on to current students?
A: Current students need to create a plan and execute it until they reach the finishing line. The programme requires discipline, hard work and perseverance. You need to keep working on your research each and every day, even if it is for one hour.
Your research materials must become second nature before you can make a meaningful contribution. I preferred to read many peer-reviewed articles before attempting to write a paragraph. There is no need to rush your thesis or prepare materials that are not well researched. You should aim to understand the contribution of experts in the field, interrogate their ideas before you make your own contribution.
Students should be ready to accept good reviews of their work even if it means more work. Their mind-set should be that all comments on a research piece are well intentioned and meant to prepare them for the finishing line. There is no need to despair during the process. It is easy to feel broken when you have to review papers over and over. The process creates tacit knowledge needed for interpreting your own results.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the foundation of a successful business/company/consultancy/organisation?
A: At the World Bank, we are guided by our core values. These are impact, respect, teamwork, integrity and innovation. These values make us successful in fighting poverty and promoting shared prosperity across our member countries. We care about people irrespective of their countries and work together to achieve our Institution’s goal through innovative methods. We produce knowledge products for the world.
Q: Which business/trade-related publications (magazines/newspapers/blogs, etc.) do you enjoy reading?
A: I am an economist, so I enjoy reading the Financial Times and other peer reviewed papers that apply quantitative techniques. I also love to read my Bible because it guides my thoughts and outlook. I have probably spent more time reading my Bible than any other material in the past 30 years. It is good to seek knowledge but beyond it, I seek understanding.
Q: What really inspires and motivates you personally?
A: I am inspired by actions that transform the lives of ordinary people. If what we are and do benefits society, we can be called achievers. My work affords me the opportunity to visit countries to study the implementation of World Bank projects. The advice I provide in my reports is expected to transform lives and allow the institution to do a better job at reducing poverty. When governments effectively collect taxes, it is for the benefit of the poor. I am inspired when services are provided effectively for all people.
My wife and children also inspire me. I am grateful to have them. Their progress in life motivates me to work harder and to achieve greater heights. I love to contribute to transforming the lives of children. The church has been an entry point for me to support many children.
Q: If you could have a face-to-face meeting with an inspiring person – in any domain – who sets an example in transforming the world and inspiring others to do the same, who would it be and what would you like to discuss?
A: I will not look far. I would like to sit face to face with my supervisors and thank them for their investments in my life. They have prepared me to meet all manner of people in the world. I will use this platform to express my heartfelt appreciation to Prof Riël Franzsen and Prof Augustine Fosu for their contribution to my life.
Allow me to mention one piece of advice Prof Franzsen gave me during one of my visits to campus. He said: “The PhD work is intensive, make sure you don’t lose your family by the time you reach the finishing line.” It is obvious that the programme is not about obtaining another certificate, but about impacting lives. This starts with one’s own family. I would love to spend some time with my supervisors to benefit from their wisdom. They have equipped me with skills to share with the world.
Q: Going forward, what are your professional/business/personal goals?
A: After completing such an interesting programme, I am disseminating my work and building a stronger network of experts for the purpose of knowledge sharing. My plan includes contributing to capacity building on the African continent in the area of tax policy.
In the short term, I intend to publish my papers. I used innovative techniques to derive data and to run my models. These models could be replicated for the benefit of many countries and to guide policy decision making. I look forward to sharing my knowledge widely for the benefit of others.
Q: Lastly, COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. In your opinion, to what extent is the pandemic likely to impact globalisation/international trade?
A: The pandemic has slowed international trade because countries closed their borders to address health concerns. We know that economic growth has collapsed in 2020 and moved from its observed trajectory for the past 15 years across many countries. At the same time, governments are recording higher fiscal deficits mainly owing to higher social expenditures and low revenue collection. It is expected that general government gross debt will continue to increase over the next five years.
We know that economies with stronger digitised systems before the pandemic have been more resilient than those with weak capacity and systems. Tax administrations which are not providing online payments systems are having challenges and collecting less revenue. Digital systems need to be built after the pandemic in many tax administrations, even at the subnational level.
Many other policy reforms are required now to assist countries cope with their debt challenges. Countries must improve their institutional coverage of debt, promote transparent debt reporting, manage their fiscal risks and grow their economies. Post pandemic, economic growth must exceed interest rates to assist the normalisation of many economies.
Governments need more resilient public finances. Governments also need to change the composition of their expenditures in favour of growth-orientated investments and to raise domestic revenues. There are tax options. Some countries may impose one-off levies, while others may impose recurring wealth taxes. There must be a stronger focus on the collection of property taxes to finance local services. Subnational governments must be given more autonomy over their expenditures and revenues to aid service delivery to their people. National governments should invest in strong monitoring systems to ensure subnational activities are consistent with national plans.
The pandemic is already shaping the future of domestic and international tax systems as well as global trade. Countries need to rethink their tax policy and administrative systems to safeguard tax compliance and revenue collection. In terms of trade, the pandemic has exposed the need for countries to support their local industries to produce basic products for their people rather than depend on imports. We have also seen innovative efforts to produce new products in some African countries as well as the opening of new markets across the world during this pandemic. Some of these private efforts would require government support and funding to be sustained.
There is also a stronger demand for good governance, jobs, police reforms, diversity and inclusive growth across the world. These demands are likely to influence the operations of some multinational and global corporations. We can now work from our homes and anywhere in the world if we have access to the internet. Experts could provide their services without the need to travel. IT companies are collecting more information than ever about consumer preferences and choices which could be used to influence production of goods and services. Our world is changing very fast and embracing everything we thought was impossible before Covid-19. We also need to change and to apply new methods in order to achieve more efficient results.
In conclusion, I will say the World Bank and IMF have prepared many resources and analytical knowledge products that could help countries.+ Researchers are encouraged to read them.