To study the mechanisms of the market economy, which he now teaches, Gani Aldashev looked to the West. But it is development economics that is now the focus of the research he is involved in at ECARES notably, one of the ULB’s leading research centres. He took time out to chat with us in English… one of the six languages he speaks.

  • An economist from Kazakhstan – that’s pretty unusual over here!

Yes, I spent the whole of my youth in Almaty in Kazakhstan, but the link with my study of economics is only partial. Of course, the situation at the time led me to wonder about the mechanisms of the market economy, but I can’t really say that my university lecturers, who had been brought up on a diet of Marxist ideology were the best placed to teach that subject! So, for that reason, after my first two years on the bachelor’s course I decided to move to a western university.

Dismantlement of the USSR

  • You say it was the situation at that time that made you become interested in economics. Why?

I was born in 1979 and, twelve years later, we witnessed a radical upheaval with the dismantlement of the USSR and the sometimes brutal transition from a planned economy to a liberalised one. As a teenager, I experienced the difficulties the middle classes had getting hold of basic necessities, quite simply because they weren’t available. By definition, regulation by price wasn’t working: my uncle, who could afford it, still had to wait ten years before he was able to buy his first car. Overnight, or almost, all of this collapsed with some positive outcomes (access to certain goods, albeit often imported… from neighbouring China) but also some negative ones (galloping inflation, state impecuniosity, etc). So this period was worrying but also fascinating: I really wanted to understand it!

  • So, you went to Paris to continue your studies… but in English.

I was offered a place by the American University of Paris: the course (Bachelor of International Economics) met my expectations, being both clear and concrete, but it was a very hard year. My knowledge of English, the language I was studying in, and of French, the language of the city I was living in, left much to be desired. But I threw myself into it and I was proud to finish this cycle as a valedictorian.

The transition from a planned economy to a liberalized
economy was a worrying but also a fascinating period

  • The next question was where to continue your studies. In Europe or the USA?

My application was accepted by several excellent American universities (Columbia, NYU, etc) but I wasn’t able to go there for financial reasons. So I decided to take up the offer from the Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi in Milan; it was timely as they were introducing a PhD in Economics and this is what I went on to do after completing my research Master’s in economics. This was a very enriching time, obviously, which also gave me the opportunity to go to the London School of Economics as Visiting Marie Curie Fellow and to the ENS DELTA economics laboratory in Paris.

“There is almost no research on Central Asia in terms of economic history.”

Arrival in Belgium

  • Why did you join the Université de Namur and, now, the ULB?

At the end of my doctorate, the Université de Namur was looking for a lecturer in political economics and, at the same time, offered me the opportunity to join the Centre for Research in the Economics of Development (CRED) which, as well as being a leading force in this subject in Europe, matched my key interests. I taught and worked there for nine years, before joining the ULB a few months ago. I knew about the value of the research being done at the ULB through my collaboration with ECARES (and with Georg Kirchsteiger in particular), and was especially keen to spend more time in research after having devoted myself to teaching: the topics that were offered to me matched my profile perfectly.

  • What precisely are your main lines of research?

I’m continuing to focus on the economics of development with Antonio Estache and Philip Verwimp at ECARES: it is a vast field of research, concerning over half the world’s population and it also has an element of urgency as many of the challenges facing us today (development, migration, terrorism, etc) are very closely connected. For around ten years I’ve been focusing particularly on the efficacy of aid mechanisms to developing countries via NGOs (non-governmental organisations). Their accumulated experience, their knowledge of local conditions and also the role given them by many western States make these NGOs useful, and in many cases indispensable. But, in reality, what more is there than this statement of principle? Is the money well spent? Should States encourage a wide range of initiatives or, on the contrary, concentrate their funding on just a few NGOs? Should competition between them be limited? Should reporting rules be introduced? These are some of many questions. The conceptual framework is lacking and yet it’s essential if policies are to be given appropriate analysis and decision-making grids.

NGOs are useful but, in reality,
what more is there than this statement of principle?

  • Your second research topic concerns the economic history of Central Asia. Is this a return to your roots? 

Partly, but not only that. The fact is that there is virtually no research on this part of the world, in terms of economic history. And yet the there is plenty of material, almost exclusively Russian in origin and mainly held in the archives of the State of Kazakhstan, just waiting to be used. Which is what I’ve started to do with my colleague Catherine Guirkinger, an excellent development economics researcher and member of the CRED (Unamur). Some initial research on the evolution of nomadic pastoralism towards a sedentary economy has been particularly well received by the international scientific community: the economic history of Central Asia is, in fact, one of the few current research topics that arouses interest for the simple fact that nothing or almost nothing on it has been published. Even though, today, two centuries after the “Great Game” that pitted the Russian and British Empires against each other, we are rediscovering the immense strategic importance played by Central Asia. It’s incredibly exciting!

His major challenge

Let’s talk about your teaching. What are your challenges nowadays?

  • Let’s talk about your teaching. What are your challenges nowadays?

I teach development policy on the Master’s in Population Sciences and Development at the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences and also at the SBS-EM, and soon a course too on International Trade and Sustainable Development, the central theme of which will consist of analysing the consequences of globalisation and the role of the multinationals on local populations. But in two years’ time, my biggest challenge will begin: an introductory course on economics for the second year of the bachelor’s degree in political, sociological and anthropological sciences, which I’ll be teaching to 700 students! I know they are very curious and open to the problematics of today’s globalised world, but I also realise that for many of them this will be their first experience of what is quite a quantative social science… and that many of them may not have had the ideal preparation to be able to cope with this.

 

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