NEW YORK, Jun 15 2021 (IPS) – Is Africa marginalised in contemporary
economics and politics, and in contemporary economic and political research?
Impressions gathered over the years and a bit of evidence (much more could
be assembled) indicate that it is. I would distinguish three types of
marginalisation: objective, objectified and subjective marginalisation.
Caused by poverty
Africa is not at the forefront of the new economic and social issues which
arise in the advanced economies. Nor does it have the funds to maintain
numerous intellectuals who create ‘theories’ and an ‘intellectual climate’.
Objectively, both problems are caused by poverty.
It is not by accident that economics developed in north-western Europe.
Modern capitalism, financial crises, problems of displacement of labour by
capital, the use of fiscal and monetary policy to wage wars and so on were
first encountered there.
This continues to the present day — albeit Modern Monetary Theory,
outsourcing, artificial intelligence and the
like have taken the place of Adam Smith’s discussion of the ‘invisible hand’ or
David Ricardo’s disquisition on the role of machinery. None of these
cutting-edge issues is present in less-developed countries.
Poor countries are
thus attractive as a field of research — but nothing more.
Poorer countries also lack resources to maintain the intellectual class
which could promote ‘their’ (domestic) issues and they thus become mere
consumers of the ideas produced in the rich countries.
That has led
to accusations of global-northern ideological hegemony but this is largely
independent of one’s will: it is built into the very system of economics and
other social sciences. We can deplore it but not much can be done about it.
At times it is reversed — as when such topics as industrialisation, central
planning, land reform, saving and accumulation came to play an important role
in economics. But this was exceptional and we are back to the ‘normal’ division
of intellectual labour between rich and poor countries.
By objectified marginalisation I mean that, while Africa does not
autonomously generate topics to be studied, it is often used as a ‘research
field’ for themes defined by the north to be examined.
These topics may or may not however have much to do with African countries
and may or may not have any real effect on the ground in Africa.
Consider randomised controlled trials. RCTs have long been plagued by
ethical concerns (as well as questionable replicability). These arise because
poorer countries and poor people implicated in them do not have much agency —
or often even full understanding of what is happening and what they are
supposed to do.
They are unable to shape projects or participate meaningfully.
Moreover, poor people’s participation is cheap since, when compensated, the
amounts received are a fraction of what would need to be paid in rich countries
for similar participation (assuming that such projects would ethically pass
Poor countries are thus attractive as a field of research — but nothing
Last year a project in Kenya randomly
turned off water to households in default on their fees — to find out how they
would react and at what point lack of water would force them to pay the
One could not imagine a similar project in which, say, households in New
York or Paris, late in the payment of some city dues, would be treated in the
I have seen how
foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) used to determine, and
still frequently do, the research agenda in eastern Europe.
Often such projects have very little domestic ownership — even if on paper
it might appear different. Northern consultants (who need such projects to
write scientific papers or justify their fees) have huge power over local
academics and communities.
They hold the purse strings: if one academic refuses to participate,
another will easily be found.
This does not necessitate outright corruption, but incentives (fees,
travel, co-authorship) are flashed in front of local counterparts. The
economist Angus Deaton recently declared: ‘Using poor people to build a professional CV should not be accepted.’
These problems are not unique to Africa — they are experienced by all
less-developed countries. I have seen how foreign-funded non-governmental
organisations used to determine, and still frequently do, the research agenda
in eastern Europe — until some of these countries became richer, their academic
community stronger and more self-confident.
But African countries have contributed to their marginalisation by not
having developed stronger academic and political counterparts. Such subjective
marginalisation is self-induced.
For instance, the reaction in 1998 of the academic community and
policy-makers in South Korea to an austerity programme imposed by the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) highlighted the lack of reaction of
intellectual communities in many African countries when exposed to even tougher
South Korean academics went on the offensive, using extensive connections
with their counterparts in the United States, and the west generally, to push
back on IMF proposals. Outside of South Africa, I am not aware of anything
similar in over half a century of African countries’ relations with the IMF.
If one puts the three
causes of marginalisation together, they clearly flow from structural impotence
to potential influence.
The self-marginalisation is even more puzzling because it cannot be put
down to lack of knowledge of the world’s dominant language. The elites in all
African countries are perfectly fluent in English and French — many in both.
By contrast, many eastern Europeans and some Asians are unfamiliar with
English, which cuts them off from the most up-to-date research — even from mundane
knowledge of whom to contact and how.
If one puts the three causes of marginalisation together, they clearly flow
from structural impotence to potential influence. There is nothing to be done
about ‘objective’ marginalisation short of Africa growing faster, getting
richer and thus provoking more interest — success always leads to interest —
and in the process becoming financially able to shape the agenda.
This is what China has done.
‘Objectified’ marginalisation would similarly largely take care of itself with
greater wealth, even if it might take longer to overturn.
It is in the subjective marginalisation where governments could reap some
early successes: it requires spending a higher share of gross domestic product
on research, creating much better universities and think tanks, and attracting
foreign researchers who, if they were to live longer in African countries (not
just visit for a fortnight), would no longer see African issues as a good way
to publish a paper but would fully participate in academic life.
In addition, it requires building much stronger ties between the domestic
research community and government. Then African countries could take more
initiative and exercise more ownership when it comes to policy advice proffered
from the global north.
economist. He is most known for his work on income distribution and inequality.
Since January 2014, he has been a visiting presidential professor at the
Graduate Center of the City University of New York and an affiliated senior
scholar atthe Luxembourg Income Study. He also teaches
at the London School of Economics and the Barcelona Institute for International