Skip to the content

Harvard health economist appointed to Finkel Chair in Global Health

The international experiences of a leading health economist will set the standard for a new high-profile role at Monash.

An eminent health economist who has worked in Asia, the Middle East and the United States has been appointed as the first Alan and Elizabeth Finkel Chair in Global Health at Monash University.

Ajay Mahal is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health at Harvard University. He has worked as a health economics advisor in Gaza and the West Bank, and as a consultant to the Indian Government. He is an expert on issues including the health financing, the social determinants of health, and the economics of HIV/AIDS.

“What excited me the most about Monash is the sense of mission people have about building a global health program,” says Associate Professor Mahal, who will join the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine in July 2010.

“Monash has something we have at Harvard as well – a close inter-relationship between lab work and public health researchers and the medical school – but also real opportunities to work with the economics department and the law school.”

Professor Steve Wesselingh, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, says the appointment is a coup for a faculty that is sharpening its focus on global health.

“Ajay's role will bring together and strengthen the many strands of the faculty's work in public health – one of our fastest-growing research focuses. His fascinating experiences from around the world will bring a fresh perspective to the Australian context,” Professor Wesselingh says.

Born in India, Associate Professor Mahal studied a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Delhi, followed by a Masters degree. He fell into the area of health economics while studying his PhD at Columbia University, New York. It was a new area at the time – and one considered “in the language of the Indian caste system, an ‘untouchable’.”

“Economics brings to bear on public health a particular kind of insight on how people behave. In particular, the traditional view of the economist has been that people behave in line with self-interest… Think even of very basic issues like how you get doctors to work in rural areas. Economics can capture a whole lot of behaviours that don’t initially seem like an economist’s cup of tea,” says Associate Professor Mahal

Among his current projects, he is working with a women’s association in the state of Gujarat, India, to make their insurance scheme sustainable. He is also working on a manuscript that examines the linkages between economics and human rights thinking on health and development.

Not long after completing his PhD on HIV/AIDS (which included papers on the economic burden of the disease and on the implications of self-interest motivations of intravenous drug users for HIV transmission), Associate Professor Mahal took a job as a health economist in Gaza and the West Bank with the Harvard Institute for International Development.

“I didn’t even go and check out the place, I simply went there. Everyone said that was the most stupid thing they’d ever heard, that nobody had ever taken a job in a place at a low salary where nobody else wanted to go. I was the only applicant,” he says

“It was probably the most useful activity I’ve ever done in my life. Because it’s a small place, all of the health challenges you might spend a lifetime trying to learn about are on your desktop every single day. You see international policies, bankrupted policies; you see a system that functions quite well and yet you represent an organisation that wants to reform a system that doesn’t need reform.”

In his new role, Associate Professor Mahal hopes to continue his work in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, using the Monash campuses in Malaysia and South Africa as springboards for comparative studies.

The position was made possible through the philanthropy of Dr Elizabeth Finkel and Dr Alan Finkel, Chancellor of Monash University, who jointly said: "Public health policies based on political instinct or non-scientific belief inevitably lead to a tragic waste of human lives.  The appointment of Associate Professor Ajay Mahal will help Monash University contribute to the evidence-based refinement of public policy that will improve community health throughout the world.  We are excited to have been able to contribute to making this

Ajay Mahal

Associate Professor Ajay Mahal