African Arguments

Does economics have “an Africa problem?” – By Morten Jerven

MortenJervenDoes Economics have an Africa problem? Yes, says Griewe Chelwa in a post for the blog Africa is a Country. Earlier this year, the Economist deservedly got in a lot of trouble for not being able to come up with any women on their so-called list of 25 most influential economists. It further spurred a needed debate about how big the problem of discrimination against women in economics is. How big is the Africa problem in Economics?

Chelwa points out that the most important conferences on African economic development routinely are organized outside of Africa. He also notes that this extends to the composition of editorial boards of journals. Both the Journal of Development Economics and the Journal of African Economies are guilty of having no members on their editorial boards who are based in Africa. Chelwa’s conclusion is devastating: “Economics as a discipline is sending a clear message: Africa cannot be a leading participant in the debates that ultimately shape its destiny.”

In response, and in keeping with the gender parallel, Justin Sandefur suggested an Africa equivalent of the Owen Barder pledge. Taking the ‘Barder pledge’ means to refuse to participate in any panel that does not have any female participants. Sandefur asked whether the same was needed: should one boycott panels on African economies that have no Africans?

One would hasten to note that a ‘diversity’ pledge based on gender is easier to apply universally than ‘representation’ based on region. Moreover, most if not all organizers of such conferences in the US, Europe or elsewhere do make an effort to provide funding and logistical support to promote participation from academics based in African countries. I know from my own experience the high cost of arranging travel and visas, but also that participation from the countries concerned makes the effort well worth it.

The editorial board policy needs to change – in their defense they can say that many of the leading African scholars are based in universities outside of Africa. It is hard to counteract inertia, but we must not let gravity become an excuse for not being upright. This may include, as Thandika Mkandawire suggests, revisiting the anti-elitist and anti-tertiary education stance taken by donors in the past three decades.

Of course, the debate on representation of Africa does not pertain only to economics; it surely applies to political science, although perhaps less so to history and the multitude of disciplines that are represented in African studies, but this question of how you can be an Africanist without being African re-appears from time to time. Disqualifying perspectives on the basis of who you are thought to be representing may be a slippery slope – and I must admit that personal experiences of having my own intentions, who I work for and so forth questioned in absurd ways shapes my perspective on this question.

I would like to suggest two things. First, studies of Africa (which does not mean only studies by Africans) are disproportionally underrepresented in the mainstream journals – in my own discipline, economic history, this is certainly true. The main journals did, until recently, hardly publish papers on Africa at all. This does in turn determine long-term incentives such as the likelihood of getting citations and so on. I think we should be promoting both research on Africa and research by Africans, and not set one up against the other.

My second suggestion is that it does matter more how studies are done rather than who did them. I think that the economic discipline is guilty of doing research on Africa that ignores local context and is lacking in policy relevance. Moreover, as Gareth Austin has pointed out, because most models of economic development are derived from studies on Europe and the West, the toolbox of economists is conceptually Eurocentric. This is the subject of my forthcoming book: Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong.

In the book, I document some ways that economists (and political scientists) systematically do research on Africa that results in misleading findings. To begin with, a good comparison should be reciprocal – that means that you can take both sides of the comparison as the norm. Instead, the economic growth literature has used the subtraction approach – so that we are able to explain lack of growth in Africa with respect to ‘lack of governance’ or ‘lack of social capital’ or any other variation of a characteristic where African countries are found to be different.

This means that we get regression results that can explain some part of the $30,000 per capita GDP gap between Japan and Tanzania, but which provide no clues as to how to go from $1,000 to $3,000 in Tanzania. A literature that focused on explaining actual growth in Africa, rather than explaining the lack of it would be more useful.

Another disturbing trend in the study of macroeconomics in Africa is the increasing distance between the observer and the observed. While country studies used to be the norm in the 1970s and 1980s, this has given way to cross-country growth regressions with global datasets. With downloaded data, there are few ways of double-checking whether reality and the data sets correspond. Moreover, much of the ‘governance’ evidence is based on using data sets that are explicitly surveying subjective opinions held by outsiders.

In essence, I think it boils down to the fact that most of the macro literature using African samples is focused on studying ‘economics’ instead of ‘economies’. The primary interest has been clean causal results and coming up with law-like general statements. This often means that relevance and local applicability is sacrificed.

To be told that ‘history and institutions matter’ and then subsequently to be presented with what one commentator called ‘wikipedia with regressions’ is indeed a paradox. Ironically, if the literature is correct it means that global sample regressions should be abandoned in favour of deep contextual studies of history and institutions. This is where representation matters – to keep economics relevant for the economies it purports to study.

Morten Jerven – @MJerven – is Associate Professor at the Simon Fraser University, School for International Studies. His book ‘Poor Numbers: how we are misled by African development statistics and what to do about’ it was published by Cornell University Press and his next book, Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong, will be published by Zed Books in their African Arguments series later this year.