African history through the lens of economics

From a VoxEU post by Nathan Nunn, Stelios Michalopoulos, Elias Papaioannou, and Léonard Wantchékon:

Since the 2000s, a vibrant stream of research on African political economy and economic history has emerged that has produced a plethora of insights and has uncovered the shadow that Africa’s past casts on contemporary economic, social, and political development. This column introduces a free online course on “African History through the Lens of Economics”, which will bring together the considerable volume of work in the economics literature of the past decades. The course is open to students with a background and interest in economics, political science, history, cultural anthropology, and psychology.

Views about Africa are, were, and most likely will continue to be highly polarising. Some economists, finance professionals, multinational executives, global entrepreneurs, and businesspeople are bullish, as there are investment opportunities in infrastructure, manufacturing, and technology, coupled with a young population that is increasingly more educated and confident. However, many are less optimistic, concerned about misgovernance, conflict, weak state capacity, corruption and poor infrastructure. Pessimists point to Africa’s dark past, including the atrocities and exploitation during colonisation, and the slave trades. 

In 2000, The Economist called Africa “the hopeless continent”. A decade later, after strong growth and institutional advancement, it renamed it “the hopeful continent”. A few years later, in 2016, the magazine described it in more nuanced terms as a land of “1.2 billion opportunities” – a reference to the potential market that its huge population constituted. Economics research has followed a similar train. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, only a handful of papers were published outside specialised outlets. But, since the 2000s, a vibrant stream of research on African political economy and economic history has emerged. The new economic history approach departs greatly from prevailing thinking in important ways.

First, scholars realised that ill-conceived, post-independence urban-rural agriculture and trade policies, authoritarianism, conflict, corruption, and lack of structural transformation (the foci of pre-2000 studies) often had deep roots stemming from colonial extraction, enslavement, the artificial design of country borders, underinvestment, and cash-crop specialisation during colonisation. 

Second, the new economics research became more interdisciplinary. For example, applied research started scrutinising influential ideas proposed by historians, political scientists, sociologists, and even cultural anthropologists. 

Third, the studies began moving beyond purely economic outcomes and drivers of development. They examined, for example, the origins and the implications of the vast differences in social capital, civicism, cultural preferences, and values. This more evolutionary approach to economic history has led to a fruitful dialogue between economics and the other social sciences; albeit one not without tension.”

Posted by at 10:54 AM

Labels: Macro Demystified


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