Home > News > Economists getting Africa wrong are a warning for the rest of us
145 views 9 min 0 Comment

Economists getting Africa wrong are a warning for the rest of us

- September 11, 2015

In the conclusion to his excellent new book, “Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong,” economic historian Morten Jerven asks the question, “Do economists have a character flaw that makes them incapable of doing scholarly work on Africa?” As Africa-focused political scientists, it would be easy to answer this with a quick “yes” and then launch dozens of cheap shots based on the errors and outright debacles Jerven describes in his book explaining why economists who examine questions in Africa have gotten so much wrong. But like Jerven, we “do not think that all economists get everything wrong about Africa all the time.” In addition, we see Jerven’s critique of Africa-focused economists as a warning sign for Africa-focused political scientists and other analysts.
In his new book, Jerven argues that economists have fundamentally misunderstood the trajectory of economic growth in Africa because they mistakenly emphasized the poor patterns of growth in the 1970s and 1980s and ignored the incredible growth in African economies that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. While economists focused on “a chronic failure of growth,” Jerven notes that this phenomenon is “something that never actually happened.” Furthermore, many economists treated Africa as more-or-less a coherent whole, looking to explain differences between African states and those elsewhere in the world rather than comparing African states to one another, furthering the narrative that “Africa” wasn’t growing while ignoring relative growth among African states.
Out of the desire to explain non-growth (even though it was a faulty premise), economists started to focus on income gaps with other parts of the world, which led to studies of other factors that came along with low income. These findings led to neoliberal economic policies mandated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1970s and 1980s, which had negative consequences for African economies and people’s livelihoods. In short, poorly done economic research led to devastating policies. Anyone who does policy-relevant research should be particularly concerned about the quality of that research, as it can have real-world implications.
In chapter four, Jerven delves into one of our favorite questions about research in Africa: data quality. He contends that most economists are relying on data of extremely questionable quality and that is, as he noted in his previous book “Poor Numbers,” often little more than made up. Jerven uses several examples from “Poor Numbers” in his new book to emphasize both that data quality from data sets in Africa is often poor, and that, often, we don’t actually know what is true about data presented by national statistical offices and those who rely on them, partly because of poor reporting.
We regularly attend annual national and regional meetings of the Working Group on African Political Economy (WGAPE), a group of Africa-focused economists and political scientists interested in rigorous study of complicated questions relating to political economy, development and conflict, predominantly through using advanced quantitative analysis and experimental methods. Two things have struck us about these meetings: First, the near-total absence of African and Africa-based scholars (WGAPE is making efforts to increase inclusion of African and Africa-based scholars through funding accepted participants to attend its upcoming meeting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in January). Second, we are puzzled by some researchers’ naïve use of “off-the-shelf” data, or publicly available data sets usually containing measures from multiple African countries that the researchers themselves did not contribute in collecting.
By naïve use of off-the-shelf data, we mean the papers we read with brief literature reviews that somehow missed earlier published scholarship that already explored the research idea being presented or that identified relevant historical and archival materials that would provide more context for the African countries and issues under study. More often, naïve use of off-the-shelf data involves a failure to interrogate the construction and quality of the data sets being analyzed. In his book, Jerven uses the term “cookbook econometrics” to describe scholars “who just follow a recipe when they do so-called empirical work, running tests with downloaded datasets.”
What should we do about these problems? Jerven suggests that economists return to “the study of economics.” Rather than supporting specific growth models, economists should let the data lead to conclusions. As he notes, “The bottom line is that there is no ‘Bottom Billion.’ The evidence shows that the so-called [poverty] traps are escapable and the so-called curses are not destiny.” Jerven contends that a focus on institutions, along with studies about why some African economies work quite well and produce growth, would lead to a more accurate understanding of the world.
How does Jerven’s book act as a warning for political scientists and other analysts? With the advent of cross-national public opinion surveys like the Afrobarometer and the increasing availability of data from national statistical offices in African countries, political scientists are just as vulnerable as economists in engaging in naïve, ahistorical analysis of off-the-shelf data sets including measures of African countries. Likewise, our research results have the potential to impact African lives, whether through policies enacted by governments or – more likely – through decisions made by powerful donors and international nongovernmental organizations.
Jerven’s book is controversial and has already provoked debate. His points are elegantly argued and although he delves into extremely technical economic concepts and methods, “Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong” is readable and easy for a nonspecialist to understand. But specialists in particular must read Jerven, and take seriously his claims.
This post concludes the second annual TMC African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular. Be on the lookout for next summer’s list sometime in May 2016. Here is a rundown of all of this summer’s posts:  
‘Protest is always hopeful’: Examining the third wave of popular protest in Africa
Governance, gender and no guarantees in Africa’s oil-rich states
What are the drivers of Nigeria’s ‘ups and downs’?
Is ‘China in Africa’ something to fear?
Should we call Africa homophobic?
Do-gooders, do no harm: What are the best – and worst – ways to help those mired in international conflicts?
This book will change the way you think about cash transfers for the poor
Why one city in Congo is astonishingly stable and prosperous
There is actually a long history of white men poaching animals in Zimbabwe
Restoring dignity after apartheid
What can you learn from a book about a historical policy in Tanzania?
Meet America’s own warlord
Here’s why Ugandans resent (some) international donors and aid groups
Anyone planning a coup should read this first