Is Africa trapped in economic colonialism?

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Does Africa have some inherent character flaw that keeps it backward and incapable of development? We find and believe that poor economic policies have played an especially important role in the slow growth, but most importantly in Africa’s lack of openness in terms of economic debates.

Economics as a discipline is sending a clear message: Africa cannot be a leading participant in the debates that ultimately shape its destiny.

Why are most important conferences on African economic development routinely organised outside of Africa? They are typically held in the US or Europe, because of infrastructure concerns in Africa. But this is not entirely convincing, given that some of Africa’s cities, like Lagos or Nairobi, have infrastructure that can easily host gatherings of African economy workshops.

Matters are not any better at the Journal of Development Economics, where none of the 64 academics serving on its editorial board is based in Africa. There is only one person that is partly based in a developing country. Is this fair?

A large number of scholars produce a huge amount of research about Africa. Most of them are not African-born or Africa-based. And the major development journals have almost no representation of African-born or based scholars.

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.

But the question of how you can be an Africanist without being African re-appears from time to time and I will ask the mainstream economists a thousand times. Disqualifying perspectives on the basis of who you are thought to be representing may be a slippery slope.

I have two suggestions. Firstly, 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 in turn determines 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 matters more how studies are done, rather than who did them. Economic discipline must be held accountable for doing research on Africa that ignores local context and is lacking in policy relevance.

Moreover, the toolbox of economists is conceptually Eurocentric. Most models of economic development are derived from studies on Europe and the West, but not Africa.

Research on Africa by economists and political scientists systemically results in misleading findings. 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.

To begin with, a good comparison should be reciprocal – that means that you can take both sides of the comparison as the norm.
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 1960s 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 datasets correspond. Moreover, much of the “governance” evidence is based on datasets that explicitly survey subjective opinions held by outsider-economists.

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 from which law-like general statements are derived. This often means that relevance and local applicability is sacrificed.

It is hard to counteract inertia, but we must not let gravity become an excuse for not being upright.
Haikali Ndatulumukwa is the vice president of NUST economics society and author of the book ‘Omona wamukweni Eyoka’.

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