Geographies in Depth

Does economics have an Africa problem?

Markus Goldstein
Lead Economist, Africa Region and Research Group, World Bank
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A couple of months ago, Grieve Chelwa had a nice post on Africa is a country where he pointed out how few (or none) of the big name international academic development conferences are held in Africa and how few Africans there were on the editorial boards of the major economics journals. He is right.

Chris Blattman followed up with a post where he argued that a big factor in driving this pattern was the “poor state” of African universities. And he pointed out that donors ought to focus more on them.

Chris’s post made me feel old. As a former exchange student at the University of Ghana, Legon and then a visiting lecturer and now a current collaborator with a number of faculty, I’ve seen quite massive changes over the last 25 years. The campus has expanded, with new dormitories, new academic buildings and an expansion in the faculty and student body. And now, young scholars often go abroad (or stay at the U of G) for their PhDs and ending up working at the University or elsewhere in Ghana. University of Ghana scholars are publishing in journals like the QJE. The wider academic landscape in Ghana is also dynamic.  For example, there’s a (somewhat) new liberal arts college, Asheshi, which is taking an excitingly different approach to teaching.

For obvious reasons, I know a bit about Ghana and Ghana is probably an outlier. But there are some other examples — Chris pointed out the new African School of Economics that Leonard Wantchekon has set up in Benin. And there are also regional initiatives that are also worth mentioning.  One of note is the 25 year old African Economics Research Consortium, which focuses not only on research but training. The training program focuses on building up institutional capacity and the curricula of individual economics departments across the continent and providing for students getting their masters and PhDs.    In the collaborative master’s in economics program (which spans 21 universities across anglophone, lusophone and francophone sub-Saharan Africa) students from universities that are still working on getting things up to international standards can send their students to other universities in the program.   And there is a similar, cross-region, PhD program as well.

On the research side, while AERC supports senior researchers, one of my favorite things is the mentoring support they set up for junior researchers. One of the key mechanisms for this is their biannual research workshops which bring together a large group of African economists to present their work, with resource people (from around the globe – including Africa) on hand to provide advice. This is proceeded by large policy-research conference to expose these folks to a research topic of policy interest – so the younger scholars can see what others are doing. Altogether, this helps the younger folks with everything from technical methods to framing research papers to making their work policy relevant. Alumni of the AERC network include not only Central Bank governors in a number of countries but more than one head of major African universities. And just this year, the governors of 12 African Central Banks announced that they would jointly be contributing core financial support to the AERC.

So yes, economics still does have an Africa problem. And Grieve’s post made that point eloquently — there is significant progress yet to make. And definitely, donors and researchers of northern origin can help out with initiatives like the AERC and building research capacity in universities across the continent (and they sometimes do). But universities, countries and initiatives across Africa are addressing the problem of training economists with their own investment and solutions.

This article was first published by the World Bank’s Development Impact blogs. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Markus Goldstein is a development economist with experience working in Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and South Asia.

Image: Job seekers wait for employers seeking casual labour on the streets of Cape Town, June 13, 2003. Reuters.

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Geographies in DepthGeo-Economics and Politics
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