Economics has an Africa problem?

A couple of months ago, Grieve Chelwa, a PhD student in South Africa, wrote a much-tweeted and blogged post about Economics’ Africa problem. A huge number of scholars produce a huge amount of research about Africa. Most of them are not African born or Africa based. Most conferences are held in the US or Europe. And the major development journals have almost no representation of African born or based scholars.

More meetings in Africa would be a good thing. Probably this is a question of willpower and cost, both of which have relatively simple solutions. But I can’t really see these accomplishing much. It strikes me a distraction.

The deeper problem is the absence of well-funded universities in Africa, and the fact that the best funded research universities don’t get that many African-born applicants. There are other barriers and problems, of course, but it’s hard to argue that inputs don’t matter.

Take African universities. Most governments don’t see these are important areas for investment, and they don’t have the taxes to support them. Aid donors could fill the gap, but find me a top ten aid donor that cares. Free primary education has sucked up all the air in this space.

For all the good that a focus on extreme poverty and Millennium Development Goals have done, it’s turned most aid donors away from indirect paths to growth and development, such as investing in the institutions that train the engineers, bureaucrats, doctors and accountants of the developing world. It’s hard to have an effective state or an industrial revolution without these ingredients.

As a result, if you happen to be an Africa-based scholar, chances are your teaching load is overwhelming, your research resources are nil, and your students have nothing at all.

You would think this would send young African scholars flooding to the West. To some extent it does. But take Columbia’s political science program as an example (which isn’t economics but I have the statistics at hand). We have three faculty specializing in Africa, and a ton of students, making it one of the best places in the US to study African political economy.

Even so, of about 500 applications to the PhD program this year, only 1.5% were from African-born students—fewer than I can count on my hands. We accept less than 10% of applicants, all of whom get full funding (including a stipend). Even with heavy attention to admitting underrepresented groups, most years we get zero or perhaps one admitted African student. We would take more, but the poor state of many African universities means that few people have the training to succeed in the program, even with some help and extra attention.

Concrete steps I could see happening:

  • One or two of the big donors, such as the World Bank or DFID, taking a third of the billions pointlessly spent on business or vocational training programs every year (not one of which has ever passed a cost benefit test when evaluated) and directing it to general university development. Or scholarships. Some evaluations here would be interesting.
  • Donors paying more attention to startups like the African School of Economics, started by Princeton’s Leonard Wantchekon. If I were a donor, I would invest heavily.
  • Professional organizations like AEA or APSA extending the mentoring and catchup and funding programs that they have developed for American minorities and women, and extending these to people from the least developed countries.
  • More research donors, like 3ie already does, providing incentives for projects to include scholars or students from low income countries.

My first instinct, when I see a problem, is not to jump to the supply-side, centralized, donor driven solution. In this case, however, I think science and the university has a good track record of benefiting from the first few, and even the last few, public dollars. But I am interested to hear other perspectives because I don’t really know what I’m talking about on this subject.