It was Mohammed Elhaj Mustafa Ali's interest in the human condition that brought him to economics.
9 Mar 2020

Everyday alchemy: Using economics as a tool to improve lives

Economics isn't about the stock market or investment banking. It's about giving people a better life, argues Mohammed Elhaj Mustafa Ali. And that's why he's in it.

As a teenager, Mohammed Elhaj Mustafa Ali was told that he, like all good students, should become an engineer or medical doctor. In Sudan, the hard sciences come with status. To become an engineer or a medical doctor is the ultimate career and achievement. These professions are the ones who build societies, who save lives. And Ali wanted to change lives, just not in the manners his teachers tried to convince him to.

In Sudan, the hard sciences come with status.

-Growing up I spent most of my time reading. I read about arts, about the French revolution, about Western philosophers. I always knew that I wanted to study the human condition, he says.

Strange as it may sound to investment bankers and financial acrobats, it was his interest in the human condition that made him want to become an economist. He wanted to help people get a better life, to aid his country on the path to a better future. To do that, he turned to economic theory and practice.

-We as a country do not suffer from cholera or any other disease. We suffer from a social disease which prevents economic growth and ultimately stops us from growing as a society, he says.

In pursuit of a dream
It was never obvious that Ali would be able to fulfill his dream. His father worked in public services, spraying parts of the Sudanese countryside to prevent malaria. He had never studied at university himself, but he appreciated the value of education and was eager that his sons could get the chance he never had.

-At one point, my father sold several of his goats to be able to afford books for us children. He was always supportive, and wanted us to go our own ways, choosing the career path we saw most enticing, says Ali.

Having the support from his father meant that he could ignore all the teachers who urged him to devote his life to the hard sciences and start studying economics at the University of Khartoum. The studies brought him to Malaysia before he did his PhD at the University of Gezira back home in Sudan.

Now he’s assistant professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Kassala and one of the Sudanese researchers participating in the Assisting regional universities in Sudan (ARUS) programme, a joint CMI/University of Bergen/University of Khartoum effort. His research focus is on the consequences getting ill or having accidents has for people’s personal economy.

-For many people, out of pocket expenses for medical assistance means that there will not be enough money left over for food or school fees. I’m studying how these out of pocket expenses affect people’s financial ability to cope with other household matters, taking into account factors like family size and female headed households. For families living on the verge of extreme poverty, such expenses for medical assistance may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, says Ali.

Relevance and impact on policy are cornerstones of the ARUS programme. These cornerstones also form the basis of both Ali’s research and his engagement in the programme. It all comes down to his view on economics in particular and academia in general. To Ali, there is no purpose more worthy than that of developing knowledge for the greater good, and he insists to always look for the link between research findings and actual policy recommendations. For his own research, this means providing recommendations to the Sudanese health authorities.

Relevance and impact on policy are cornerstones of the ARUS programme. 

-Out of pocket expenses on medical assistance represent a financial strain that the authorities have to ease. And even though it can seem difficult, there are ways of achieving this. One is to make sure that there is an equal distribution of health centres and health staff throughout the cities. The other is to expand the health insurance coverage, he says.

Change from within
Ali has been involved in the ARUS programme since 2018. He places great emphasis on the ARUS model where research based on local needs and initiatives, and on the capacity building that takes place when partners work so closely together. He argues that the Sudanese-Norwegian ARUS research team is not there to change the Sudanese reality, but to assist, and that the capacity building aspect of the programme is well suited to do exactly that.

-It is imperative to honour the many who made the biggest sacrifice of all during the uprising that succeeded in overthrowing Bashir; the ones who paid with their life. We can only do that by working hard together to bring positive change and growth. And we can only do it ourselves. No one from the outside will help us, he says.

He points to the work required to lift the economic sanctions against Sudan as a primary task for the interim government over the next months. The sanctions have had a crushing effect on people, and have contributed to the financial strain for the households that Ali is studying in the ARUS programme.

Ali was himself asked to play a role in Sudanese politics for the Forces of Freedom and Change, but declined the offer because he wants to focus on research. A time may come for getting more involved in politics and administration, but for now, it will have to wait.

-A lot of people ask me if I would choose the same career if I could choose again. Many of my colleagues say that they would have chosen differently if they were given a fresh start. But I would not. I would make the exact same choices. I would become an economist. I would pursue a post doc. I would study household economy and expenditures. Because this is about real life. This is what economics is about at its best; about creating a better life for people, he says.