Health care maven
Prof. Nandakumar takes on a newly developed policy position in USAID
Social justice can, at times, seem like an ideal that is hard to define - a construct impossible to concretely extend beyond the walls of a classroom. At Brandeis, however, there are faculty members who devote their careers to bringing this ideal to fruition, working every day to translate theory into practice in order to defend the world's most vulnerable people.
Prof. Allyala K. Nandakumar (Heller) is one of these faculty members, an economist who has succeeded in finding efficient ways to deliver health care to the poorest and most marginalized sector of the global population. In his new role as chief economist for Global Health for the United States Agency for International Development, which began in November 2013, Nandakumar will provide a crucial voice that synthesizes economic expertise and humanitarianism. "My role is to try to sit there, and shape the strategies and policies of the United States government. You are part of these big discussions, you are shaping what is happening," Nandakumar said.
Nandakumar completed his undergraduate and master's studies in India in the field of mathematics. He then worked for several years as a bureaucrat, running large organizations in India, before being one of two Indians selected to become a Fulbright scholar in the U.S.
As a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Boston University, he wrote a paper about health economics that impressed his professor. He immediately introduced Nandakumar to the Heller School for Social Policy and Management's Dr. Stan Wallack, and Nandakumar's relationship with Brandeis was born.
Nandakumar and Wallack had a mutual passion for analyzing problems in the financing and delivery of health care. Nandakumar promised Wallack he would eventually join him at The Heller School, but in the meantime he accepted a faculty position at Harvard University in order to explore other aspects of economics before he committed to specializing in social policy at Heller.
Throughout his 25 years as a professor and researcher, Nandakumar has worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the World Health Organization and the World Bank as a consultant, creating a unique role for himself at the intersection between the academic community and the political world of global health.
For Nandakumar, who resides in a unique intersection between the political and the academic, the Heller school is the ideal environment to conduct research and translate it into policy. "What is most critical is how one brings research to practice. One must ask, 'if I want to translate this research into policy, what are the potential barriers to implementation, and what are the interventions that can be performed?'" Nandakumar said.
Nandakumar will be the first person to occupy the role of chief economist for Global Health for the United States Agency for International Development. This role was created by the U.S. government in response to significant structural changes in the global arena regarding health care financing and the number of small donors who play a role in financing global health. "The number of people who are playing in this space and trying to address major global problems has increased," Nandakumar said.
Also affecting the rapidly changing face of global health is the magnitude of economic growth in African countries, as well as countries such as Brazil, China and Russia. "They are becoming big economic powers who have a different say. ... The kind of assistance you provide needs to be rethought," he said. By a vast margin, the largest funder of global health in the world is the United States government, and assistance flows through USAID.
Nandakumar's first goal as chief economist involves engaging the political world with the academic one. "The first goal is to actively bring health systems, health financing and health economics to bear on some of the big internal discussions that are taking place to inform and shape those discussions," Nandakumar said.
Secondly, Nandakumar plans to work directly with the countries themselves in order to install functional health systems that accurately address the needs of individual countries. "From the health systems perspective, it's not a question of going in and doing the work. I go in, put in clean water, and I'm out. Nothing is left behind. So I think the perspective the U.S. government is taking, rightly, is to create country systems that are sustainable. Countries are increasingly going to take ownership of their own destiny," Nandakumar said.
Third, Nandakumar plans to build external partnerships with organizations he has worked with in the past, such as the Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization. "I hope to mentor, create and strengthen a network of health economists, and people interested in health financing, within USAID," Nandakumar said.
The ideal of social justice and global health policy are, from Nandakumar's perspective, inextricably linked. For Nandakumar, it is a moral necessity that efficiency is balanced with equality. "Society is obligated to pay more attention to those who have less. Everybody should be treated equally, and everybody should have equal access, therefore we are required to look specifically at the poor and marginalized populations. You come up with a very different policy recommendations if you put a social justice lens on social policy," Nandakumar said.
Nandakumar encourages aspiring advocates for social justice. "You are all here because you believe in social justice. ... It is not easy to make it happen, the fights are not always easy, but I really feel that it is worth it," he said.
"My only advice is you are here at this great place-remain passionate, don't give up. As individuals we cannot solve all the problems, but each one of us is capable of making a difference."