Chris Blattman

Economics has an Africa problem?

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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.

127 Responses

  1. The development community views the development process as a dualistic one of privilege, dominance, and wealth versus deprivation, subjugation, and poverty. This perspective has championed the importance of participation and led to the assumption that, “the poor, weak, vulnerable and exploited should come first” (Chambers, 1997: 11, emphasis in the original). Green (2000: 70) highlights this key point implicit in most uses of the term participation, noting that “participation is morally appealing and politically acceptable to development workers and social scientists wishing for a fairer world.” However, a failure to consider the specific mechanisms through which participation and development link up has meant that the two are often simply assumed to dovetail.
    In the most basic sense, it is true that the marginalized and “especially disadvantaged” (World Bank, 1992: 177) should be the focus of participation. Yet, such an interpretation masks understanding and insight from the established theories of development and the pivotal role that the actions of institutions can have. The poorest students with the fewest skills and least experience and interest would have a more difficult time initiating a cooperation than other better-off students who are more motivated to engage and committed to building collaborative arrangements. Yet, it is precisely these kinds of organizations that would play an indispensable role in the development effort. The point then to be made is that the focus should be on the people with the skills and resources to build functioning organizations and generate higher levels of productivity as opposed to the poor.
    This, of course, is not intended to rule out the poorest of the poor and other stakeholders from the scope of participation. Poor households and the poorest especially depend crucially on local resources and most of them have very few options. Their concerns must be effectively taken into account in decision-making and implementation, and formal mechanisms must be introduced for the sharing of power, resources, and responsibilities. But, the idea that the most disadvantaged groups may set up structures for a nation to gain increasing control over its development is not only wishful thinking but also misrepresents reality.

  2. Doesn’t the field of economics have an Africa problem? There are tons of publications in AER, JDE, EDCC, etc but none of them have African co-authors. That seems like a problem.

  3. Chris, no rancor intended. I simply was trying to address the questions that you raised. Most specifically, why few Africans study at places like Columbia and why there is little Africa-produced research. Regarding the latter, I agree with ABA that it is not that Africans don’t produce research (often in the face of huge obstacles– a point about which we agree) but that Western scholars consistently ignore African intellectual production and prefer to use African scholars as glorified RAs instead of true collaborators. This was the point of Chelwa’s post which itself is part of a long tradition of African intellectuals questioning their relationship to western institutions and scholars. (Again, see MM’s book on this). Regarding why few Africans study at Columbia, you seem to be purposefully acting naive. Students don’t end up in PhD programs randomly. They are encouraged to go there by networks of scholars who ease their path every step of the way. If no Africanist scholars are grooming younger Africans to earn PhDs then none will. You and I both know this is true. Other departments at Columbia don’t seem to have the same problem, so then I have to ask what is it about poli sci that makes it different? I think there are a few things going on, but one is certainly the complete exclusion of African intellectual traditions at almost every top polisci program in the US. Do you dispute this? If you don’t, could you explain it to me?
    Some minor responses to other things you raise. First, MM may have a courtesy appoint in polisci, but we both know that there is a reason his office is in Anthro and that he and others went off and created a whole new department at Columbia (MESAAS). Claiming him as your own stinks of rank opportunism. Second, the idea that resources limit your ability to teach in Africa again is ridiculous to the point of offensive. You, KK and MH (the three Africanists in the department) are scholars with extraordinary resources by any standards. At the least, you could easily get a Fulbright. So why act like you don’t know that the truth is that area studies, and African specific area studies in particular, have been demoted in value by American political science, so much so that a very famous Africanist professor at one of the UC’s actively discourages his students from studying African languages calling them a “waste of time.” I don’t think it is you personally that is responsible for this state of affairs, but I do question why you won’t acknowledge it. I could never in good conscience recommend an African student to study Africa in a US based political science department (and I have taught at African universities).
    Scholarship about other countries or peoples should be about mutual engagement and respect. Do you think that the top programs in poli sci in the US meet this standard in relation to their African colleagues? How so? You are an Africanist who teaches a grad course on development, and out of over 100 authors assigned, maybe 1 was African (and of course, it was Wantchekon- a great scholar no doubt). To be fair to you, I bet that’s probably more than the average for Africanists at top poli sci programs in the US.
    There are other things I’d like to say, but I don’t really have any desire to be perceive as attacking you when you are just a symptom of a broader problem and certainly not the source.

  4. Chris, I do not think the solution rest with your insistence in overlooking the main point of Chelwa’s post, which is that there ARE African scholars who are producing good research and should be engaged in international discussions about Africa’s development. I agree with your points, particularly on improving tertiary education, but please, let us not pretend that as we speak there are no African scholars in Africa that are producing insightful work that should be considered…You somehow seem to have ignored this very important point

  5. Despite the rancor, @Huh? makes some good points. I share some of his views.

    I think aid donors and African governments cut back investments in African universities in the crisis years of the 1980s and 1990s, and part of my post was to say I’d like to see that funding return. If universities had more funds available, it would be a lot easier for people like me to spend time teaching in an African institution, even if the travel were just covered. Scholars in Africa would have more time to write, and there would be more opportunities for intellectual exchange. We’d also have more people like one of my faculty colleagues at Columbia, who is Kenyan born (not to mention Mamdani himself, meaning technically half the Africanists in the dept are African born).

    It’s true: there’s quite a number of US-based scholars that take theories of interest elsewhere in the world and test them in Africa. But there are also a lot of us engaged with questions of very intense local interest: How to stimulate employment? What drives local violence? Who is benefiting from industrialization and who is not? What drives vote buying?

    I’d like to think some of represent a different breed of scholar. Stereotyping US scholars and departments, and painting us all with the same brush, is not the solution.

  6. This piece is a borderline offensive reading of Chelwa’s original post. Do you really think the solution to African higher education lies with Western aid? Are you really unaware of the role that the IFIs played in dismantling institutions of higher learning on the continent– places like UDSM or Makerere that once had robust research cultures? Didn’t your own colleague MM write a whole book about this? Did you read it? Of the Columbia poli sci professors who you mention that make it such a wonderful place to study Africa (according to you), how many have studied in Africa? How many have taught at an African institution? How many teach African scholars on their syllabi (beyond Wantchekon or occassionally MM)? How many even attend the annual meeting of the African Studies Association? I’d like to believe you really are this naive, but I think you just prefer to ignore what is the more obvious truth. Contemporary American political science has serious contempt for African scholarship. It is regarded as backward, unsophisticated, incapable of producing original thought, and hence worthy of being dismissed or ignored. You and others teach your students to take pithy observations derived from the study of American politics and apply them to African contexts in the name of scientific rigor. I would call this a form of racism, but I accept that is a bit harsh. But please don’t go around feigning ignorance about the actual challenges to African intellectual production when you are actively invested in its destruction.

  7. This is anecdotal, but perhaps illustrative of at least part of the problem.

    An African man I know got his PhD in economics from a pretty good university in the US. (FWIW, I looked up the US News ranking and it has that econ department ranked in the 30s.) He was a good student and his dissertation even won some awards.

    Given the reputation of his department and the quality of his dissertation I assume he could reasonably have expected a promising career as an academic economist, but the professional incentives he faced drew him immediately into the “international development” world, where his new credentials vaulted him into the category of “international” (rather than “local”) staff, and away from the academic world. Rather than bust his ass to be paid fairly poorly as an assistant professor for 7 years before (maybe) getting tenure, he chose the positively lavish life of high salary, high status, paid-for housing, fancy hotels in exotic places, generous per diems, and predictable job security that is not unusual for an international hire in “development” organizations.

    If you’re looking for the missing African economists, it seems likely to me that you’ll find them at the World Bank, IMF, AfDB, UN agencies, and other development organizations.

  8. Large scale funding and experience sharing is one way how governments and universities from the North could help potential and existing universities and African students in particular. Its encouraging to see Leonard Wantchekon in Benin and Mahmood Mamdani in Uganda setting up universities and teaching programs back in their home countries. Another example how both African and Western-based researchers currently contribute to improving both teaching and resource material is by a new open-source online textbook primarily intended for lecturers and undergraduate students, in Africa and elsewhere edited by Ewout Frankema (Wageningen) and Ellen Hillbom (Lund) and other contributors of the African Economic History Network (AEHN) founded in 2011.

    The current eleven chapters describe and explain various aspects of historical African development trajectories in plain English language. All chapters include a list of suggested readings and a number of study questions to test student’s comprehension. By offering this material in an open source environment the AEHN seeks to facilitate a wider diffusion of the knowledge that is generated within our academic network and support capacity building among a new generation of African researchers, historians and development practitioners.

  9. Chris, I think you’re not getting the main point Grieve is making. It’s not about a lack of funding or a skills deficit, African scholar’s are excluded from these fora.

    Most of the research isn’t very technically heavy, requiring advanced analytical tools. To do a randomized trial in an African setting is pretty straightforward. And African scholars would provide the localised knowledge to interpret such studies better.

  10. Some of these billions could be spent on course review and improvements. Also it could be used to fund some visiting profs at African universities. These profs could give specific courses on major issues for students but also existing professionals and academics.

  11. Not sure what you mean by “general university development”. Are you thinking of something different than what WB is already doing through the African Higher Ed Centres of Excellence Project?

    I would argue that African universities waste an enormous amount of money by staying wedded to a 30-hour/week class schedule. If I could spend money in African it would be to wean their universities off this model and towards a North American one. Would have a huge one-time productivity effect, which is needed to accommodate more students (or upgrade graduate programs or whatever). Ashesi university in Ghana has, somewhat sneakily, managed to get their hours down towards N.Am levels – it;s one of the reason it can get as much mileage as it does out of tuition dollars/cedis.

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