A renaissance reconsidered
Last week I attended the African Economic History Workshop at the London School of Economics. It was an excellent workshop, with 40 high-quality papers presented and more than 70 attendees. That is remarkable growth if you consider the previous African Economic History Workshop I attended, in Geneva in 2012, attracted around 10 papers and perhaps not more than 25 participants.
The reasons for the renewed interest in African economic history is discussed in the introduction to a new special issue of the Economic History Review entitled The Renaissance of African Economic History, incidentally the same title I used in a blog post in October last year. African economies are rising, if you haven’t heard, and with it comes greater interest in understanding the long-term determinants of this rise in prosperity. For long, much of the literature focused on the perceived persistence of poverty across the continent, but as new research reveals (some of which was presented at the workshop), not all of Africa has always been poor. The innovation of this New African Economic History School, if I can call the new approach to African economic history that, is to rely on big data. This is not the sort of Big Data that is fashionable in business intelligence or behavioural sciences, but rather a return to the historian’s own laboratory, the archives. Funding is now available to digitise and transcribe documents like historical military, missionary and marriage records which provide, often for the first time, individual-level information on the economic living standards of Africans during the colonial, post-colonial and, in rare cases, even pre-colonial period. These records often remain hidden in African archives, but as the workshop showed too, there is still much to learn from exploiting the wealth of statistical information in the colonial Blue Books, most of which is now available online. Browse through the papers presented at the workshop and you’ll see all kinds of interesting data: trade records from the Blue Books, Ugandan missionary records, tax records from Portuguese Mozambique, wage records from Senegal, household data for apartheid South Africa.
Another feature of the New School is the young age of participants, on average. A new generation of scholars, taught in the language of statistics and unburdened by the ideological struggles of the post-independence period, is coming of age, initiating their own research programmes, winning research grants, training new PhDs and opening positions for postdocs. It was difficult, for example, not to bump into one of Ewout Frankema’s PhD-students or postdocs at the conference, all doing wonderfully exciting work on a wide range of topics and (African) countries.
Yet it also struck me – and perhaps as a South African I am more sensitive to this – that there is still a long road ahead. Much of the new African Economic History is happening in Europe. Of the 56 authors (if we allow for several authors per paper), only three were from Africa. Of those three, only one was black. This echoes the fact that only one of the nine papers in the EHR’s special issue on Africa was written by a team from Africa. Of course, this is not limited to the EHR: as I’ve written recently, in the Economic History of Developing Regions special issue on the economics of apartheid which I edited with Martine Mariotti, no paper was published by a black author. This imbalance of contributions is not easy to rectify; funding lacks at many African universities to attend these workshops, and even where there is funding, there is often a disconnect between the methodologies employed by the New African Economic History School and those of an older generation of economic historians whose work remain isolated in History departments throughout the continent.
More should be done, though. The best would be to start at the bottom and train a new generation of African students in the methods and tools of the New School. The good news is that this is happening; this textbook, written by members of the New School, is available for free to anyone teaching African economic history. But intervention is required at higher levels too. We need to deliver more African Masters and PhD students that are able to use the tools of both Economics and History. We need more opportunities for the best African students to study at European and American universities. We need stronger networks and exchanges between African and European economic history research centres; networks that allow for the greater cross-fertilization of ideas, methods and data.
If we are to avoid another Scramble for Africa (this time in search of historical data) or, as has been suggested to me by local archivists, the ‘recolonization of African data’, we need to actively empower more African students, and especially black students. This is a challenge to myself and my colleagues at South African universities, but also to my European colleagues who perhaps have access to more resources. I am happy to report that there is certainly a demand from African students: at the end of November, I will run an ERSA Economic History training workshop in Pretoria. Although I had planned (and budgeted) for only 15 students, more than 30 mostly Economics students signed up. Of those, more than 70% are black. It is time to ensure that the renaissance of African economic history is not only about Africa, but also for Africa.