Think tank cofounder makes the most of Kazakhstan’s and China’s complementary development initiatives
(MA XUEJING / CHINA DAILY)
Once a secondary school physics teacher, Meruert Makhmutova has worked her way up to become a leading economist in Kazakhstan. Through a think tank she cofounded 17 years ago, she has been helping the country find effective solutions on public issues.
The Public Policy Research Center (PPRC) is based in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and its trading and cultural hub. The center was established by Makhmutova and fellow economist Kanat Berentayev in 2001 under an initiative of the Open Society Institute, in Budapest, Hungary, to create an independent think tank in Kazakhstan.
It was listed as one of the top Kazakhstan think tanks in a survey in 2017 by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States.
Different from many think tanks in Kazakhstan that work on political issues, Makhmutova said the PPRC is focused mainly on economic matters — issues pertaining to the society’s needs and the livelihoods of over 17 million people in the largest economy in Central Asia and the ninth largest country in the world by territory.
“It is important for our society to have a different option on how to make economic decisions in times of turbulence,” said Makhmutova, who is not only cofounder and director of the PPRC but also holds other responsibilities as an active researcher, economic policy adviser and author.
After graduating in physics from S. Kirov Kazakh State University in 1985, Makhmutova taught the subject at a secondary school for over two years. When she had given birth to her second child, she switched to a research institute of power engineering that studies power station projects.
But the whole situation in Kazakhstan soon changed. After gaining independence following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakh government decided to transform the country from a centralized planned economy to an open and market-based economy. In the first few years of the transition, the economy contracted sharply.
“Power stations were not able to pay in time to our institute for services,” said Makhmutova. “As a result, the institute didn’t pay salaries to staff.”
To secure income to support the family, she decided to take short-term accounting courses and, in addition to working at the institute, she started to advise a business on accounting and taxation.
After working in the private sector for a few years, Makhmutova decided to step up in her career by applying to be a postgraduate student at the National Higher School of Public Administration under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
It was here that she had a taste of gender inequality. Although she topped her graduating class, her diploma stated she came in second. The school decided, at the last moment, to award the first place to a male student.
“I was angry but I understand that it is not related to my character, because papers cannot change my competitiveness,” said Makhmutova, who proved herself later by becoming a member of the Expert Council of the Security Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan, under the president, and a member of the Council of Economic Advisers chaired by the prime minister. She is also the cofounder of the Association of Economists of Kazakhstan.
Since its initial stages, the PPRC has taken part in many important policy campaigns such as land reforms and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative that helps improve business transparency.
It also introduced a gender budgeting program together with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, to provide training to government to help understand why gender programs are important.
For Makhmutova, one of the PPRC’s most important milestones was publishing Kazakhstan’s first Civil Society Index (CSI) in 2011. With the aim of creating a knowledge base for strengthening civil society, CSI is a program designed by CIVICUS, an alliance of civil society organizations with members in over 175 countries.
Several indicators were included, such as the trust in government, the trust in different government institutions, and interpersonal trust, said Makhmutova.
“CSI is an important milestone for different investors and international organizations to see where Kazakhstan falls in internationally recognizable democracy standards,” she said.
In less than two decades, Kazakhstan has transitioned from lower-middle-income to upper-middle-income status. Its GDP per capita has risen sixfold since 2002, according to the World Bank.
While acknowledging the country’s significant achievements, Makhmutova said it still faces the challenge of economic diversification.
“Sixty percent of our exports are oil exports, so it is important for Kazakhstan to develop a diverse economy and find new drivers for sustainable growth,” said Makhmutova.
“In my view, rural development, development of the agriculture sector, can sustain our economy and bring new sources and stable income to our national budget,” she said.
While agriculture accounted for 34 percent of GDP before independence in 1991, Makhmutova said the proportion has fallen to less than 5 percent in recent years.
Kazakhstan is one of the world’s largest grain exporters, with potatoes and milk products also among its main products, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But Makhmutova said most foreign investors are only interested in the mining and oil sectors, not agriculture.
However, she sees growing interest from Chinese investors in diverse businesses ranging from agriculture to the energy sector, with deepened cooperation driven by the China-led Belt and Road Initiative.
In Northwest China’s Shaanxi province, Yangling Agricultural Hi-Tech Industries Demonstration Zone, a national-level high-technology development zone, has established modern agricultural demonstration parks in Kazakhstan.
The Belt and Road Initiative comprises the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Chinese President Xi Jinping first raised the idea during his visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013.
As a key transit hub on both the ancient and modern Silk Roads, Kazakhstan has historically played an important role in connecting China with the rest of the world. It is China’s largest trading partner in the Central Asian region and China’s largest investment destination among Belt and Road economies, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce.
The logistics terminal jointly built by China and Kazakhstan has been in operation at the port of Lianyungang in East China’s Jiangsu province since 2014, providing the landlocked country with a means of sending goods overseas.
The two countries have agreed to develop more international freight train services, making rail freight a major solution to trade between Asia and Europe by 2025.
In a meeting with Xi in 2016, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said the country is willing to connect its new economic policy, Nurly Zhol (Bright Road), with the Belt and Road Initiative.
“It is necessary to make this policy more open and more transparent,” said Makhmutova, as she sees China working to make the initiative well understood by the general public. “It will make the decision-making process more stable and more understandable for people.”
Looking to the future, Makhmutova aims to see the reach and impact of the PPRC bolstered and expanded, transforming it from a national think tank in Kazakhstan to a regional one.
Cofounder and director, Public Policy Research Center (PPRC), Kazakhstan
2000: PhD in economics, Kazakh State Academy of Management
1997: Postgraduate diploma in public administration (with honors), National Higher School of Public Administration under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan
1985: Bachelor’s degree in physics, S. Kirov Kazakh State University
2002-present: Cofounder and director, PPRC
2016-present: Member of the Expert Council of Economic Advisers under the Government of Kazakhstan
2008-12: Member of the Council of Economic Advisers under the Government of Kazakhstan
2011-15: Member of the Expert Council of the Security Council under the President of Kazakhstan
2008-present: Cofounder, the Association of Economists of Kazakhstan
2013: CICOPS Scholarship, University of Pavia, Italy
2014: Civic Initiative Scholarship, University of Massachusetts Amherst, US
2007: Summer School at Central European University, Budapest
What is the biggest challenge you face?
The biggest challenge for me is to lead the PPRC and access sustainable funding. We are working on projects, participating in different tenders, and seeking new clients for our services.
Why do you think it is important to empower women in modern society?
I have two daughters, three small granddaughters and one son-in-law. I would like to see them happy, as now we do have an opportunity to develop a society that does not face (gender-based) discrimination. In my view, education is very important for women because good education can make women equal with men.
What more would you like to learn about China?
In the long term, I would like to learn Mandarin. I understand China has a long history so I want to learn more. (If I learn it) in English, it is impossible to understand all the nuances. So in my view, for neighboring countries, it is important to learn more about each other.
Date of birth: Oct 16, 1963