Economist was moved to shift her focus by the startling inequality she saw in her homeland.
May 13, 2021
Ganchimeg Ganpurev MPA/ID 2021 will tell you that being an economist for the Mongolian Central Bank is not a job for the faint of heart.
Due to its wealth of natural resources, Mongolia’s economy is heavily based on mining and commodities. That was a blessing in 2013 when Mongolia had the world’s fastest GDP growth at over 11 percent, but a curse in 2016 when a slowdown in neighboring China reduced demand for Mongolia’s exports and caused it to slide into recession. The country’s currency collapsed, foreign investment tanked, and Mongolia’s first-ever international bonds were fast coming due. “There was lots of chaos at the time,” she says. “I was lucky to be part of the technical team that got involved in that challenging work.”
Ganchimeg was a junior technocrat on a team that worked with the International Monetary Fund to structure a $5.5 billion stabilization plan that saved the country from looming default and a possible depression. Yet even as she was helping rescue Mongolia’s economy, she says she was becoming increasingly concerned about its growing levels of inequality and the country’s stubborn 30 percent poverty rate. On the streets of the capital Ulaanbaatar, she saw women with Prada bags stroll past people struggling to afford a loaf of bread. “As a human, sometimes that just hurt my heart,” she says.
To pursue her growing interest in development inequality, she enrolled in the Master in Public Administration in International Development (MPA/ID) program, arriving at Harvard Kennedy School in the fall of 2019. It was a homecoming of sorts—as a teen she had first been inspired to study in the United States while watching “Love Story in Harvard,” a Korean soap opera filmed in Harvard Square and on campus. (She also earned dual degrees in economics and mathematics at the University of Kansas.) But when COVID-19 hit, she found herself caught in Cambridge between a closed campus and Mongolia’s aggressive response to the news of a possible pandemic next door.
“When my country closed the borders, that was when I missed home the most. Even if I wanted to go home I couldn’t. When I lost my grandmother—that was one of the hardest things, pushing through that semester,” she says. “Then I tried to adjust my mentality, focusing on what has been happening at the granular level in the world. There are millions of people losing their primary incomes during the pandemic, while we are having this bittersweet privilege to be able to work at home with laptops.”
The best thing about the MPA/ID program, she says, has been the faculty and her classmates—80 people from 26 countries—even with the restrictions that mostly kept them from meeting in person. “The faculty are amazing; they’re not just stars in their fields, but they also have a really compassionate teaching style,” she says. “They try to create this really cooperative culture where you help each other and you share what you know, and that really inspires collective learning. And then you have your classmates, who are coming from other countries where they are experts in their fields … so when they give you feedback it’s way more valuable than a textbook answer.”
Ganchimeg says she was particularly inspired by several professors, including Assistant Professor of Public Policy Anders Jensen, her advisor for her Second Year Policy Analysis, (in which she makes the case for a progressive tax in Mongolia); Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy Dani Rodrik; Lecturer in Public Policy Michael Woolcock of the Building State Capability program; and her section advisor, Rema Hanna, the Jeffrey Cheah Professor of South-East Asia Studies.
She also served an internship at the Center for International Development, in the Growth Lab’s Albania project—an intensive research effort to help build fiscal growth and stability in the former Marxist-Leninist republic and to increase the Albanian government’s ability to implement reforms and policies. “One reason I was really attracted to the Albania project is that the country is very similar to Mongolia in terms of the transition from a centrally planned system to a free market,” she says. “Plus, in terms of population size we are both around three million people.”
Although she can now return home (Mongolia has loosened its border and travel restrictions after making it through the pandemic with just 179 deaths thus far), she’s still contemplating what the future holds for her. She says she wants to utilize her insight into macroeconomics to address economic inequality—particularly in the context of development. “Let’s see what happens,” she says.
Portraits by Natalie Montaner