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The economic stories we tell

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Economic stories

Story-telling is as old as civilization. Around the fire, in religious texts, and in children’s books, stories give us identity, teach us right from wrong, and inculcate us with the norms and values that help us make sense of the world around us.

Economists are beginning to understand that stories also shape our behaviour, and therefore our economic outcomes. In a new NBER paper, financial economist Robert Shiller, the 2013 Nobel-prize winner, calls for the study of what he calls ‘economic narratives’. He argues that the way we talk about certain events, the stories that were told during the Great Depression (of the 1930s) or the Great Recession (of 2007) or even the stories we tell of Trump’s economic policies today, affected (or will affect) the outcomes of these events. Business cycles, he explains, cannot only be explained by the rationality of numbers. The stories we tell, and how these stories spread, matter too.

Economic stories or narratives are simplified ways to help us understand the world. They can take many forms: from newspaper articles and books, to memes, anecdotes, and even jokes. They often appeal to us not because they account for all facts, but because they explain the world in a way that strengthens our existing biases and beliefs. And their success is unpredictable: consider how difficult it is to identify the next ‘hit’ on YouTube or cultural trend to go ‘viral’.

Shiller uses, well, a story to explain the impact of stories. One evening in 1974, at the Two Continents in Washington DC, economist Arthur Laffer had dinner with White House influentials Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield. They discussed tax policy, and Laffer took a napkin and drew an inverted-u graph. On the left side, tax rates were 0%, which means tax income was also zero. On the right side, tax rates were 100%, which meant that no-one would work and tax income would also be zero. The point of the curve was to show that there is an optimal tax rate where tax income cannot increase further, whether you increase or decrease tax rates.

This meeting in 1974 would not have been remembered, was it not for the story-telling powers of Jude Wanniski, who wrote a colourful article in National Affairs about the dinner four years later. The story went viral (see image), and had a massive impact on Ronald Reagan’s election as US president in 1980 and his commitment to cutting taxes. (He argued that cutting taxes could increase tax revenue because America was on the wrong side of the Laffer curve). This story was so powerful that a napkin with a Laffer curve is today displayed in the National Museum of American History.

Laffercurve

Shiller is, of course, not the first to argue that stories matter. A few years ago, Barry Eichengreen, professor of Economics at UC Berkeley, explained in his presidential speech to the Economic History Association that, while scientists use deductive or inductive reasoning in their research, policy-makers often rely on analogical reasoning. He knows this from experience: when the severity of the Great Recession became known in 2007, policy-makers realised they had to act fast. Had they followed a deductive approach, they would have had to agree on the theoretical reasons for the crisis. Eichengreen argues that this was almost impossible given the deep divides in the field of macroeconomics. Had they followed an inductive approach, they would have had to rely on statistical evidence, much of which was not available immediately.

So instead they turned to an event that they had studied: the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ben Bernanke, who was a student of the Great Depression, used analogical reasoning to ensure that the same mistakes were not repeated. Expansionary monetary and fiscal policy followed. The analogy with the Great Depression also made it easier to communicate their policy response to the broader public. Instead of trying to explain theory or statistics, they could construct a narrative that helped people understand why quantitative easing or fiscal stimulus was necessary.

If stories matter in shaping our response to economic events or in persuading us of the validity of some economic policies, what should economists do about it? Shiller suggests that we should incorporate textual analysis into our research: “There should be more serious efforts at collecting further time series data on narratives, going beyond the passive collection of others’ words, towards experiments that reveal meaning and psychological significance.” But this is difficult: “The meanings of words depend on context and change through time. The real meaning of a story, which accounts for its virality, may also change through time and is hard to track in the long run.” New techniques in data science may help.

Eichengreen proposes more emphasis on the study of history. Consider the case of a bank failure in South Africa today. What will we use as policy response: theory, statistics, or earlier bank failures, like Saambou and African Bank? Probably the latter. The problem, Eichengreen warns, is that there is not a single version of history. We all have our ideological glasses through which we look at the past. This is especially true when the facts of what had happened during these past failures are not widely known. The recent Bankorp saga comes to mind.

Because ‘historical narratives are contested’, Eichengreen suggests, we should see ‘more explicit attention to the question of how such narratives are formed’. In other words, if we want to improve our understanding of the world and our ability to predict the future, it’s time economists learn how people tell stories, and how these stories persuade us to behave differently.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 23 February.

Four high-growth scenarios for Africa

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africagrowth

Can African countries sustain the relatively high growth rates they attained since 2000? At the start of 2017, putting aside the newsworthy political shifts and the fear of many that the developing world has entered a ‘secular stagnation’, this remains the most vexing question for those of us on the African continent.

It is not a question with an easy answer. The stellar economic performance of several African countries has created an ‘Africa rising’ narrative where further progress – and catch-up to the developed world – seems inevitable. A more pessimistic counternarrative argues that this growth, from a low base, is largely the result of favourable commodity prices and Chinese investment. Both narratives had, unfortunately, made little use of either economic theory or history.

Enter Dani Rodrik, professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, who tackles this question in a new paper in the Journal of African Economies. He first shows that many African economies have indeed improved since 2000, but that many, including Senegal, the DRC, the Ivory Coast and Zambia, remain on levels below those immediately following colonialism (around 1960). The second fact he establishes is that the rapid growth of the last dozen years has not lead to a large structural transformation of the economy. Whereas rapid growth in south-east Asian economies during the late twentieth century resulted in the growth of manufacturing, a more productive activity than subsistence farming, high growth rates in Africa have not had any effect on the relative size of manufacturing. In fact, in many countries, the size of the manufacturing sector has actually declined since 1975.

Rodrik attributes these changes not so much to factors unique to Africa – like a poor business climate or weak institutions or bad geography – but to a global trend of deindustrialisation. Even Vietnam, a country which has recently experienced rapid growth, has not seen much growth in manufacturing.  And Latin American countries, which have decidedly better institutions than three decades ago, have also not seen much growth in manufacturing. Technological change – the move to automation, for example – is one likely reason.

So despite high growth rates, African countries have not industrialised – and, in fact, may have even begun to deindustrialise. This is why Rodrik is pessimistic about Africa’s future growth prospects. He nevertheless concludes by considering potential scenarios in which Africa can indeed sustain high growth, and identifies four possibilities: 1) To revive manufacturing and industrialise, 2) To generate agricultural-led growth, 3) To generate service-led growth and 4) To generate natural resource-led growth.

Let’s start with agriculture. Although many African countries have a lot of potential to expand their agricultural sectors, productivity in the agricultural sector remains low. Many farmers are subsistence producers, with low economies of scale. Such a scenario will require a reversal in the current trend away from agriculture. A recent study by Diao, Harttgen and McMillan show clearly how the share of agriculture is falling, particularly as women older than 25 are moving to the cities and into manufacturing and services. This trend seems irreversible, even if changes to technology (like seed varieties or market access opportunities) or institutions (like private property) are made, which means that an agricultural-led high growth scenario seems highly unlikely.

A natural resource-led strategy also seems unlikely for most African countries. Yes, most countries on the continent are well-endowed with resources, but the problems of the Natural Resource Curse and Dutch Disease are well known. It may be an option for some small economies, like Botswana has shown, but one has to question to what extent it can be sustainable beyond a certain level of income.

A third option is to reverse the trend of deindustrialisation. Because a growing manufacturing base seems to be, at least if we consider past examples of industrialisation, the only way to increase labour productivity over a sustained period of time, this is the option preferred by many development agencies. Yet there are many obstacles in the way of a thriving manufacturing sector, including poor infrastructure (transport and power in particular), red tape and corruption, low levels of human capital, and political and legal risk. But as explained earlier, Rodrik believes that even if these (very difficult) barriers can be overcome, it is not clear that manufacturing will return. The Fourth Industrial Revolution may completely alter the nature of manufacturing away from absorbing unskilled labour to capital and knowledge-intensive production. As I’ve said before, it is dangerous to follow a twentieth-century blueprint when production technologies are so different.

That leaves us with one scenario: services-led growth. Services have traditionally not acted as an ‘escalator sector’ as Rodrik explains. The problem is that services typically require high-skilled labourers, one thing that is in short supply in a developing economy. Rodrik does acknowledge, though, that the past will not necessarily look like the future. “Perhaps Africa will be the breeding ground of new technologies that will revolutionise services for broad masses, and do so in a way that creates high-wage jobs for all. Perhaps; but it is too early to be confident about the likelihood of this scenario.”

I don’t see an alternative, though. Yes, some countries, like Mozambique or Tanzania, will be able to expand their agricultural sectors – but higher productivity will probably mean larger farms with fewer workers. A few small countries will be able to benefit from natural resources – from diamonds to rare minerals like tantalum (used in cellphones and laptops); oil-producing countries will struggle, though, as the cost of renewable energies keeps falling. And some coastal countries may even develop their manufacturing sectors, like Ethiopia and South Africa. But for most of Africa, services offer the only reprieve from low productivity, low-wage jobs. From semi-skilled jobs like call-centres and virtual au pairs (apparently the next big thing) to professional services like accountants and designers and programmers, digital technologies must help leapfrog the barriers of poor infrastructure, bad geography and weak institutions. If it cannot, Dani Rodrik’s pessimistic vision of Africa’s future is likely to come true.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 26 January.

We are still on the way up

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time_trump_covers

I arrived in the USA a day after Donald Trump was announced as president-elect of the United States. I gave talks at Harvard, Mount Holyoke College and MIT, and met with several faculty and students over the four days of my visit. It was eerie. Some students were still in denial, not helped by the fact that they started drinking as soon as the results became evident. Others were in various stages of grief: angry at the nativism of a large chunk of Americans, bargaining in the hope that Hillary might still win, or depressed at how quickly the America of Obama – to whom many at these prestigious institutions look up to as an inspiring intellectual – has given way to the America of Trump – whom they consider to be a coarse, boastful buffoon.

Trump’s victory seems to have been another nail in the coffin of liberty and progress. In America, walls will replace bridges. Despite what Trump has said on the campaign trail, his tax cuts will likely benefit the wealthy elite. And his views on women, on LGBT rights, on climate change, on health care, on trade openness and on immigration is likely to reverse much of the gains in general freedoms the US has made over the last decade.

These trends are not limited to America. Earlier this year the Brexit result revealed the same nativist fear, an anti-open, anti-globalisation vote. Brexit was a vote for a return to the ‘good old times’, however unlikely that is to materialise. It was a vote against intellectualism; liberal London against the conservative hinterland. And in South Africa, the rise of nativist populism on both the extreme right and left reflect a similar frustration with the progressive Rainbow Nation of yesteryear and its liberal (sell-out!) constitution.

Across the globe, it seems, the extraordinary liberty and progress of the 1990s and 2000s are being rejected for a more insular, protectionist conservatism.

We should not be that surprised. Liberty and progress, as a historian at MIT reminded me on my recent visit, is never a foregone conclusion, never an obvious eventuality.  Liberty and Progress is not an Uber ride, taking the shortest, fastest route to a known destination. It is, as the Beatles knew, a long and winding road. Sometimes there are detours, and sometimes we get lost.

Take, for example, Martin Plaut’s latest book, Promise and Despair, the story of the delegation of black leaders that traveled to London in 1909 to fight for representation in the new Union of South Africa. Remember, since 1853, the Cape Colony had had a non-racial franchise, allowing men of all races who had sufficient income or property to vote. When the unification of South Africa began to be discussed following the Anglo-Boer War, many had assumed that the (Liberal) English government would extend the same franchise to all. In fact, this was the promise Lord Salisbury had made in 1899. But politics trumped morals. To secure the support of whites in South Africa in case of war, the English reneged on their promises and turned down the appeal of the delegation. Liberty and progress had to wait.

But to focus on the newsworthy failures of liberty and progress the last few months misses the much bigger story of the last few decades: the incredible improvement in living standards of most of humanity. Johan Norberg, in a new book simply titled Progress, concurs: ‘Despite what we hear on the news and from many authorities, the great story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place.’ Life expectancy has risen sharply, poverty and malnutrition have fallen. The risk of death in war or natural disaster is tiny in comparison to our parents or grandparents.

 

longruntrends

Reasons to be optimistic: Trends for important human welfare measures are all positive in the long run. Source: ourworldindata.org

 

But this does not mean we should be complacent. Says Norberg: ‘There is a real risk of a nativist backlash. When we don’t see the progress we have made, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain. Sometimes it seems that we are willing to try our luck with any demagogue who tells us that he or she has quick, simple solutions to make our nation great again, whether it be nationalizing the economy, blocking foreign imports or throwing the immigrants out. If we think we don’t have anything to lose in doing so, it’s because we have a bad memory.’

2016 has been a year of setbacks. It reminds us that liberty and progress are never fait accompli, never self-evident. We have to work hard at it, and even then it is not guaranteed. It requires patience and a long-term view. But don’t let 2016 shake your beliefs about humanity’s march forward: we are still on the way up, even if it will take us a little longer to get there.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 15 December.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 30, 2016 at 13:21

High-skilled migrants matter – and we’re not winning

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elon-musk-is-making-history

One of the baffling things in explaining the Industrial Revolution is that education, that pillar most economists believe to be critical for economic growth, seems to have played a relatively minor role. Universal public education was a consequence rather than a cause of the Industrial Revolution. Eighteenth-century England did not first have a skilled population before they had an economic transformation; the uncomfortable truth is that it was the other way round.

This uncomfortable truth does not suggest that formal education was completely unimportant. It suggests, instead, that much of what caused the Industrial Revolution was the scientific knowledge obtained by an elite group of highly skilled artisans, inventors and entrepreneurs. It was not the average level of education of every Brit that mattered. Most of the breakthrough technologies of the era – the Spinning Jenny, the steam engine – came instead from upper-tail tinkerers who had hoped to make a profit from their innovations.

A wonderful new research paper by economists Mara Squicciarini and Nico Voigtländer in the Quarterly Journal of Economics confirm this. They use the subscriber list to the mid-eighteenth century French magazine Encyclopédie to show that knowledge elites mattered in explaining the first Industrial Revolution: in those French towns and cities where subscriber density to the magazine was high, cities grew much faster in the following century, even when controlling for a variety of other things, like wealth and general levels of literacy. Their explanation? Knowledge elites (engineers, scientists, inventors) raise the productivity at the local level through their piecemeal innovations, with large positive spill-overs for everyone around them.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. High-skilled workers are the stars of today’s knowledge economy. Their innovations and scientific discoveries spur productivity gains and economic growth. Think, for example, of the immense contributions of Sergey Brin’s Google, or Elon Musk’s Tesla, or even Jan Koum’s WhatsApp. It is for this reason that the mobility of such highly talented individuals has become such an important topic – consider that all three individuals mentioned above are immigrants to the United States. There is little doubt that the most prosperous economies of the future will be the ones to attract the most skilled talent.

Which is why understanding the push-and-pull factors of current global talent flows are so important, and the subject of an important new article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The four authors begin with the facts.  High-skilled elites are more mobile: between 1990 and 2010, the number of migrants with a tertiary degree increased by 130%; those with only primary education increased by only 40%. More of these high-skilled migrants depart from a broader range of countries and head to a narrower range. While OECD countries constitute less than a fifth of the world’s population, they host two-thirds of high-skilled migrants. 70% of these are located in only four countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

The United States, unsurprisingly, dominates all rankings. Since the 1980s, of all the Nobel Prizes awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics, academics associated with American institutions have won over 65%, yet only 46% of this group was born in the United States.

emigration-rate

One fascinating and underappreciated fact of global migrant flows is the role of highly educated women. Between 1990 and 2010, high-skilled women immigrants to OECD countries increased from 5.7 to 14.4 million; in fact, by 2010, the stock of highly skilled women migrants exceeded male migrants! As the authors note, ‘Africa and Asia experienced the largest growth of high-skilled female emigration, indicating the potential role of gender inequalities and labour market challenges in origin countries as push factors.’

And what about South Africa? The authors calculate the emigration rates of high-skilled individuals by country for 2010, and plot these on a graph. South Africa is a clear outlier: emigration of high-skilled individuals is the sixth highest of the countries included, and by far the highest for countries with more than 10 million people. This is worrisome. True, some of this emigration is made up by high-skilled immigrants from our African neighbours, like Zambia and Zimbabwe, who also have high emigration rates. But the fact remains: our economic outlook will remain precarious if we continue to shed high-skilled individuals at these exorbitant rates.

Is there something to do? The authors mention various push and pull factors that affect the decision to migrate, from gatekeepers that pull the best talent by giving citizenship based on a points system to repressive political systems that suppress freedom of speech and scientific discovery and push the best and brightest to emigrate. If South Africa is to prosper, high-skilled individuals should be recruited and retained – not pushed to find opportunities elsewhere. Protests at universities do not help; providing residency to graduates, as the South African government has proposed, will.

In the knowledge economy, knowledge elites are the bedrock of success. If we are to learn from history, cultivating them should be our number one priority.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 3 November.

Books to make you think this summer

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It’s – finally! – summer again. After three winters in a row, Helanya and I are looking forward to some sun, sea and sand (and watermelon, and ice-cold beer, and cricket on the tele, and litchis, and did I mention sun?). And what better way to enjoy summer than with excellent local and international books, fiction and non-fiction to make you think. Here’s what I’m recommending for those long, lazy days on the beach:

2016book1Nomavenda Mathiane’s excellent Eyes in the Night tells the true story of the life and times of the author’s grandmother, Gogo Makhoba. Apart from the title (I don’t quite understand the relevance), the book is an eye-opener on a neglected part of South African history: the tale of a young girl’s adventures during and after the Anglo-Zulu war of the late nineteenth century. It is an incredible story of resilience in the face of almost unthinkable atrocities. And yet, with the author resisting the urge for melodrama, grandmother okaMakhoba and her experiences of running from the English Redcoats, working in the household of the horrible Oubaas, and then running away to Zulu missionaries who convert her to Christianity, complicates our often oversimplified version of history. Who stole land, and at what cost? How did Christianity affect Zulu traditions? What are the differences between township and traditional Zulu culture? It is good to be reminded that history is never black and white. Through her grandmother’s extraordinary life, Mathiane gives South Africans a vibrant picture of our own interconnectedness and, for lack of a better word, complicatedness. Eyes in the Night is a book I enjoyed thoroughly and is my book of the summer.

2016book2Deon Meyer is a household name, and not only in South Africa. Yet his stories are as South African as they come. He has produced another gem with Koors (as far as I can see, still only available in Afrikaans). What happens when 95% of humanity is wiped out by a deadly virus? How do we rebuild civilization? How do societies develop? Yes, this is the fictional story of a young South African boy and his dad trying to survive the aftermath of a deadly virus, but it is more than that: it is a philosophical reflection on the roots of development. What role for specialisation, for trade, for politics, for religion in the creation of societies, and how do these interact as these societies become more complex over time? (Sidenote: political economists familiar with the literature on stationary and roving bandits would particularly enjoy this. If I have to be critical, I would have liked to see more economics – for example, the birth of currency in this post-apocalyptic world, or the emergence of debt and credit, although I guess these are less sexier topics.) Combine this fascinating setting with a murder plot and you’ve got a book that is much like all his others: unputdownable. And I promise: you won’t be able to predict the twist at the end…

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I’ve just started Richard Baldwin’s The Great Convergence, but have seen enough to recommend it. Globalization is not popular, yet it continues to lift many out of poverty. Baldwin’s clear analysis of an increasingly complicated phenomenon helps us understand how the the cost of moving goods, ideas and people has shaped, and will continue to shape our economies – and politics. Richard Evans is a historian I greatly admire, and he seems to have produced a wonderful new account of the nineteenth-century in Europe: The Pursuit of Power. (Sidenote: I also love the cover.) The Information Nexus presents an intruiging new thesis that explains the rise of capitalism not so much as an accumulation of capital but instead as an improvement in our ability to record and process information.

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Johan Norberg (great name) shows why we should be a little less despondent about the events of 2016: the world is still a much better one than the one of we inhabited a decade or five decades earlier. One way to summarise the book: ‘200 000 people were lifted out of poverty yesterday’ is a newspaper headline that could have appeared every single day the last decade. Donker Stroom is an award-winning true story of an Afrikaner writer and poet and his adventures in England during the Anglo-Boer War. Still unread, but it comes highly recommended.

I will post a couple of my Finweek columns over the next few weeks, but this will be the last personalised blog post for the year. Thanks again for continuing to read, and share my posts: I appreciate all the feedback and support (and criticisms) I receive.

2016 has been a tough year in many respects. Let’s hope 2017 will be filled with happy surprises.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 29, 2016 at 14:06

Africa’s $500 billion-a-year treasure fleet

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zambezi

I usually tell my students that understanding the world is much like understanding the flow of a river. We busy our lives floating on its surface, unaware of the tremendous forces below. Those forces, or currents, have various layers. Just below the surface are the forces still visible to us, the things we might still want to influence. Media, popular culture, sport. Below that is the more established institutions – political, judicial. And below that, I would argue, are the economic forces, pushing us down the river without us ever knowing the true source of the current.

But I often neglect a perhaps even deeper current, a current so slow-moving that in the business of our day-to-day operations, we fail to see its significance. Demographic change.

The world has witnessed massive demographic change over the last two centuries. In the eighteenth century, Reverend Thomas Malthus predicted that because humans increase at a geometric rate but food production only grow at an arithmetic rate, humans will continue to live just above subsistence. What he did not consider was human ingenuity. Since his famed prediction, not only has global population numbers increased by a factor of 7, our average level of prosperity has increased by at least a factor of 8 (and in many countries much more).

But demographic change is more than just an increase in numbers. As medical knowledge and modern medicine expanded, mortality rates, especially those of young children, have fallen to historically low rates. As families recognised that many of their children now survive into adulthood, they have begun to reduce the number of children they have. (When Adam Smith wrote about Scottish Highlands mothers in 1776, he noted that of the 20 children they might bear, only two would survive into adulthood. In 2014, the average Scottish women had 1.56 children.)

The difference between the decline in mortality and the decline in fertility is known as the demographic dividend. A demographic dividend essentially means that there are many more people of working age than there are dependents (very old and very young people); thus, there are more paying taxes than those needing the tax money. Most developed countries experienced their demographic dividend somewhere during the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Most Asian countries experienced theirs during the latter half of the twentieth century; even in Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries on earth, the fertility rate is now 2.21, just above replacement level.

Africa has not seen fertility rates fall to the same extent. A new NBER Working Paper by David Bloom, Michael Kuhn and Klaus Prettner argues that this is likely to happen in the next few decades, which means ‘Africa has considerable potential to enjoy a demographic dividend’. This will be a boon to Africa’s economic prospects, but, as the authors argue, only if countries implement good policies.

One place to start is to give women the freedom to choose the number of children that they have. Access to contraceptives and family planning services are among the reasons for the decline in fertility rates elsewhere, and too many women in African countries still lack access to such services. Policies focusing on female education will boost female labour force participation, which not only reduce fertility rates, but also increase investment in their children; more educated, working mothers tend to have fewer, more educated children. The main challenge, as the authors acknowledge, is the capacity of many of the weakest governments to coordinate such policies effectively.

Once fertility rates in African countries start falling – as they already have, down from a high 6 in the 1960s to a still relatively high 4.7 in 2015 (South Africa is an outlier, with a fertility rate of only 2.4) – and the demographic dividend begins to boost government coffers as the number of child dependents fall relative to the working age population, governments will have to make clever, forward-looking decisions about what it is they want to invest in. Education, particularly tertiary education, is an obvious candidate.

Barriers that might prevent African countries from realising these gains include climate change (which affects migration decisions) and, more alarmingly, the wastefulness of government expenditure (corruption, state capture). The authors calculate that a demographic dividend could ‘yield’ as much as $500 billion per year in additional expenditure possibilities. It is easy to see how such a boon could lead to political opportunism in the worst degree.

Because a demographic dividend ‘only’ lasts a couple of decades, after which the working age population grows old and become dependents again, governments must ensure that they invest wisely during the good years. Many developed countries, from Italy to Japan, are today struggling with aging populations, and the fiscal demands of promised pensions.

That is why long-term fiscal planning is essential. In those African countries where fertility rates have already fallen significantly, notably in South Africa, these issues are much more prescient than in others where the demographic dividend is still to be realised. What is clear, though, is that we should be more cognizant of the deep underlying currents that determine the flow of the river, and the direction our boat is likely to go.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 22 September.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 27, 2016 at 06:33

It’s the sixth AEHN meetings!

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Stellenbosch PhD student Abel Gwaindepi presenting his research at last year's AEHN meetings

Stellenbosch PhD student Abel Gwaindepi presenting his research at last year’s AEHN meetings

This week the University of Sussex hosts the sixth African Economic History Network meetings. I’ve just arrived in Brighton for what will be a full programme of conferencing on Friday and Saturday, and meetings and discussions in-between. Our hosts, Alex Moradi and Felix Meier zu Selhausen, have done a splendid job of attracting more than 60 high-quality papers from a wide spectrum of economists and historians working on the African past. The full programme is available here.

This is an important moment for the field. Having grown rapidly over the last few years as younger scholars (mostly from Europe) embrace the field of quantitative African economic history, the annual meeting now provides a platform for many of them to showcase their work. Their passion and enterprise have uncovered new data sources, which have challenged long-held beliefs about topics like precolonial inequality, the economic causes underpinning the Scramble for Africa, the effects of missionary education, fiscal regimes, and many more.

But this can only be a beginning. As debates about decolonising curricula within South African universities raise legitimate concerns about challenging a Eurocentric view of African development, the challenge for the Network and for the broader research community is to expand the pool of researchers using these new sources and methods. African economic history, as I’ve written before, is a wonderful tool to contextualise the often ahistorical and acontextual economic theories that are the bedrock of economics courses. And while these formal models are necessary to allow students to evaluate economic policies and communicate their findings to an international audience, their interpretations must be informed by local histories and conditions. That is what a quantitative African economic history can do.

To dismiss the immense contribution the new breed of African economic historians that will congregate in Sussex has made is senseless. These scholars have spent many years reading and researching the African past, digitising precious historical sources, analysing trends and interpreting the African past based on new empirical results. These efforts have often also been associated with significant financial resources, which have allowed many sources to remain in the public domain. They have also written textbooks that are downloadable for free to African students.

My hope is that more African scholars can become participants in and contributors to these debates. Funding remains an issue, but so too a demand from African students. It would be wonderful, for example, to see more Masters dissertations at South African universities on African economic history questions. This is not always the students’ fault. As one of my own students recently reminded me, it is the responsibility of academic staff to instil in students an interest in the important and often difficult (and contentious) research questions of our time. What were the causes and consequences of slavery and colonialism in its many dimensions? Of colonial infrastructure and education? Of the IMF structural adjustment programmes and the debt cancellation and development aid? Of immigration and emigration? Of natural resources and sovereign wealth funds? Of genetically modified crops and robotics?

Hopefully the AEHN meetings at Sussex this week will pose some of these important and difficult questions. And when the seventh African Economic History Network meetings come around next year (in Stellenbosch), we will have a large pool of African students contributing answers – and new questions.