Magazine Feature / People

Grabel saw poverty early; she’s dedicated to war against it

Many children want to fight fires or chase down crooks when they grow up. Ilene Grabel knew from an early age, however, that her battle would be against poverty.

Grabel is director of the Program in Global Finance, Trade & Economic Integration in the Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS).

As a young girl, Grabel grew up in close proximity to the poor. Her parents had immigrated to New York City from Ukraine (then a part of the USSR) and worked in factories in the Garment District. She lived near Queens College, which she still describes with awe.

“It was an amazing place,” she says. “The freedom, the cosmopolitanism, people everywhere chasing their dreams.”

Her personal observations of poverty, combined with the limitless potential of a college setting, inspired a fervor in Grabel.

“I think I understood early on that economics was a way to address poverty,” she says. “In fact, I thought it was the only way to understand the world, especially inequality. I’ve since learned, of course, that there are many ways to understand the world, but economics made the most sense to me.”

Grabel earned her undergraduate degree in economics from Queens College. By 1992, she had obtained her master’s degree and PhD in economics from the University of Massachusetts. She thought her path would lead to an economics department somewhere, tucked away with the math and theory professors. But then she discovered GSIS at DU.

“With GSIS, I get to apply my economics background to a rich international program,” Grabel says. “This is a great place to teach and learn.”

Her scholarship interests have ranged from domestic policy research to international affairs, almost always focused on the impact that policies and institutions have on developing countries and the poverty that is rampant there.

In addition to teaching and research, Grabel consults with non-governmental organizations and with the United Nations. She says the consulting feeds her scholarship and teaching.

“There is a synergy among the three,” she says. “I would never want to be an employee of an NGO, for example, because I’d miss the teaching and scholarship so much.”

Tim Kiefer (MA ’03) was Grabel’s student.

“Dr. Grabel is a terrific lecturer, easily the best I was taught by at GSIS,” Kiefer says. “Dr. Grabel’s passion for her subject is very evident in the enthusiasm with which she approaches her courses and her students.

“Her writings, including her most recent book, are aimed at ensuring an open discussion on economic development that considers options for addressing poverty and economic justice.”

Her book, Reclaiming Development: An Alternative Economic Policy Manual, was co-authored with Ha-Joon Chang and was first published in 2004.

During the winter ’06 quarter, Grabel took a sabbatical to begin pursuing a new line of research: the impact of bilateral trade agreements on developing countries. She is assessing how power is shifting due to investment treaties. For this research, she will interview representatives of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the U.N., among others.

Grabel admits that her contacts and influence today spread farther than she ever dreamed as a child.

Still, “I think I knew my passion earlier than most. I’m lucky.”


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