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Posts Tagged ‘economic history

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.


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.

How a pair of glasses – and a cup of tea – can change the world

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Cup of tea 4

I got my first set of eyeglasses at the age of 16. I vividly remember sitting at the back of the physics class and squinting to read the formula on the board, and the embarrassment of having to move to the front. I also vividly remember the joy of facing my friend in the nets when, wearing new contact lenses, I could finally ‘read’ his spinners.

Invented in Italy in the 13th century, eyeglasses were initially used by scribes to allow them to remain productive long after their natural eyesight had deteriorated. But the technology improved over time, and has allowed me and many generations of young and old, male and female, doctors, soldiers, clerks, truck drivers, computer scientists and athletes with hyperopia (farsightedness) to remain productive members of society.

But many millions are not so lucky. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 20 million Africans are visually impaired, and hopes to reduce this figure by 25% by 2020. Many of these are children in schools, struggling to read the board or their prescribed books. This is an example, it seems, where developmental efforts should be focused: an inexpensive solution with long-term benefits for the recipients.

A new study published in the Journal of Development Economics attempts to measure the gains from just such a programme. Paul Glewwe, Albert Park and Meng Zhao report the results from a randomized control trial in Western China that offered free eyeglasses to rural primary school students. Almost 10% of primary school students in these areas have poor vision, but very few of them wear glasses. The authors find that wearing eyeglasses for one academic year increased the average test scores of students with poor vision by an amount equivalent to 0.3 to 0.5 years of additional education.

That is a massive economic return to a small investment, which should raise the question: Why don’t parents make this investment themselves? For poorer families, it seems that eyeglasses are still too expensive. But other factors matter too: parents often lack awareness of their children’s vision problems, and it seems like girls are more likely to refuse wearing glasses. Maybe it’s time to introduce more glasses-wearing female characters in children’s programmes. (Apart from 78-year old Carl in Up, I can think of few Pixar/Disney movies with a lead character with glasses.)

This type of research allows policy-makers to identify the low-hanging fruit of development. Whereas more textbooks, or higher teacher salaries, or even deworming programmes (all policies that have been tested in schools) can be expensive, free eyeglasses will, with a small initial investment, yield large returns for the (often marginalised) individual and society.

Initiatives to improve health can have many other benefits too. Randomized control trials have been done on the impact of everything from washing hands and better toilets, to home-visitation programmes for teenage mothers and promotion programmes aimed at reducing open defecation. (Eliminating open defecation in rural villages, it is found, can increase child height significantly.)

South African researchers are making progress in identifying the low-hanging fruit for local communities. Ronelle Burger and Laura Rossouw, two researchers at Stellenbosch University, are investigating the impact of the Thula Baba Box, a box filled with baby products, clothes, information brochures, basic medicines, toys and other items, and given to young mothers. If the results show a large, positive impact on maternal and child health, there is no reason why the Thula Baba Box cannot be provided, free of charge, to all mothers in the country. Not only is it morally just, but it is a clever investment strategy too.

Sometimes, though, the low-hanging fruit can be as basic as a cup of tea. A new study by Francisca Antman of the University of Colorado-Boulder investigates the custom of tea drinking in 18th century England. One of the unintended consequences of tea drinking, which happened even among the lower classes, was an increase in the consumption of boiled water. She finds that regions in England with lower initial water quality had larger declines in mortality after tea drinking became widespread. This ‘accidental improvement’ in public health, she argues, happened at the same time as people were moving into cities, thus providing a healthy pool of labour needed for industrialization.

The next time you sit down with a cup of tea and a good book (remember those glasses!), remember the profound effect those simple ‘technologies’ have had, and, with the help of researchers and government funding, are still likely to have in much of the developing world.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 30 June.

What we can learn from university rankings (and the Chinese)

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The Masters in Statistics at Columbia in 2015: Any guesses where these students are from?

The 2015 Masters class in Statistics at Columbia University: Any guesses where these students are from?

Last week I presented a paper at the Economic History Association conference in Nashville, Tennessee. As with the two earlier EHA meetings I attended (in 2010 and 2013), what impressed me was not only the quality and sophistication of the research, but the breadth of the topics and questions investigated. I listened to excellent presentations on how labour scarcity during the American Civil War affected racial relations afterwards (Tim Larson), on how concessions given to private companies in the Congo Free State affects development outcomes today (Sara Lowes and Eduardo Montero), on how the spread of malaria in the US South raised the price of slaves immune to the disease (Elena Esposito), and on how US military investments during World War II had absolutely no long-term impact on local industrialization (Taylor Jaworski). (A story in the South African press this morning suggests that our own government’s attempts to stimulate local manufacturing through investment in military technology, the Centu­rion Aerospace Village, has yielded very few returns…) For the economists: what made these papers great were their transparent and innovative identification strategies, coupled with a simple but strong narrative. The full conference programme is available here.

The scale and scope of such world-class research in the US is reflected in the latest QS World University Rankings that was released last week. Ten of the world’s top 20 universities are in the US, and 18 of the top 50. In economics, the US advantage is even more dominant: 15 of the top 20 Economics departments are  at US universities, and 21 of the top 50. Which explains why US universities attract the best talent from across the world, notably India and China.

As I’ve written before, if African countries are to benefit from globalization and innovation, it needs to send its students to places that can offer them elite education. That is why China sends 250 000 of their students to US universities every year. Some remain in the US afterwards, but most return, improving the quality of teaching and research at Chinese universities. Just look at how fast Chinese universities are moving up the QS rankings and you will realise the benefits of this system.

Despite what many might say, these rankings are important and becoming more so. Potential students use them to determine which university to attend, potential employees use them to decide where to apply for a job, scholars use them to choose where to spend a sabbatical or with whom to collaborate, and funding institutions use them to judge applications. For that reason it is great to see that Stellenbosch University, my home for the last fifteen years, is moving steadily up the rankings, from position 390 last year to 302 in the current edition. That progress is the result of incentives to produce quality research (Stellenbosch is in the top 100 universities globally in terms of citations received, the only university to break the top 100 in Africa). In the overall list, the University of Cape Town fell slightly to 171, but it remains the highest-ranked African university.

South African universities face the dual challenge of having to racially transform their staff body and improving their competitiveness. These are often seen as competing, mutually exclusive challenges, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. Achieving transformation and competitiveness simultaneously will, however, require different (and possibly more demanding) solutions than only focusing on one or the other.

The answer is to look beyond our shores. Very few South African students end up at US universities. Importantly: very few black South African students study towards an (Economics) PhD in the US. This needs to change: We need to do much more to encourage our best and brightest (black) students to study abroad. Such a strategy, I believe, is the only sustainable way to transform the South African academic landscape within a generation from mostly white to mostly black, while continuing to move up the rankings ladder.

A strong higher education sector has massive spillovers for the rest of the economy too. There is no reason Africa cannot aim for at least two or three universities in the top 100. Because of our location and affordability, South Africa can become a hub for the best and brightest African scholars. Exporting higher education services is a comparative advantage we should exploit. And students often remain in the country where they study; some of the most innovative (and most transformative) companies in the world were started by immigrant students who moved to the States to study. Think Google and Tesla.

The problem is the poor incentives for South African universities to make this happen. The Department of Higher Education gives large financial rewards to universities for each PhD that graduates. In contrast, there are no rewards for sending your best (black) students to go and study in the States. That means that universities do their best to hold on to their best students instead of encouraging them to obtain a degree from a higher-ranked university elsewhere, even though that might be in the student’s best interest. In addition, PhD bursaries are frequently available for South African students studying here, while a first year of studies in the States can be in excess of R500 000. (Fortunately only the first year is usually expensive; thereafter research and teaching positions can help.)

This is a market failure where the South African government should intervene. So here is my request to Minister Nhlanhla Nene: Do as China does (see picture). Provide several hundred bursaries for students to study in the States. Some of them will (and should) remain behind; for example, a South African Economics professor at Harvard will yield long-term returns for the South African economy in terms of research questions and collaboration. But many of the graduates will return to South Africa, filling positions vacated by a retiring, white professoriate. That is how you transform into a world-class African university.

As I write this, I discover an online article about the tragic events of the last few days at the University of Kwazulu-Natal. Early on Thursday, a Westville campus residence was torched. On Sunday night, two cars and the building which houses the office of vice-chancellor Albert van Jaarsveld were torched. You don’t need a PhD to realise that this is not a sustainable way to transform the South African academic landscape. Instead, let’s look at ways to send our intellectually gifted to the best universities in the world. And bring them back to train and teach the next generation of engineers, computers scientists and… economic historians.

A good year

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Helanya and I, with Willem and Zorada, in Berlin

Reichstag selfie: Helanya and I, with Willem and Zorada, in Berlin

I’m officially on leave from today. It’s been a good year; a busy first six months of teaching followed by a productive second half of research. I presented in Barcelona in September and at the LSE and Sussex in October, but these were mostly opportunities to meet old and new friends (economic history is like that). It’s fantastic to see African economic history take off, and it is thanks to a dedicated group of great people. The 2014 South African Economic History Annual will be online soon, but a sneak peak can be found here. There are many exciting things awaiting in 2015 too. More research, more workshops and conferences in places I haven’t been before, and more good times with good friends.

But first it’s time for a holiday. I’m off on a golf tour for four days. I don’t play golf, so it promises to be memorable and hilarious for all the wrong reasons. Robin Williams summarized the rationality of golf best, I think. Then it’s Christmas, which in the southern hemisphere is associated with sun tan lotion and ice cream and hours spent in front of the TV watching the Proteas play cricket. It also means time to reflect on the year that’s been, and appreciate those around you. There are many people who have made this year special. Our parents and parents-in-law enable us to travel to and spent time in some of South Africa’s most exotic locations, like the southern Cape coast or the Kruger National Park. We spent a wonderful time with Willem and Zorada in Berlin and then Barcelona. Alfonso Herranz-Loncan was very kind to host us in this wonderful city. Pim de Zwart invited me to Amsterdam, Leigh Gardner invited me to London, and Alex Moradi and Felix Meier zu Selhausen welcomed me in Sussex. This year, for the first time I think, I’ve learned more from my students than they from me. My colleagues and co-authors have been kind and encouraging in their advice, and many have become role models that I hope to emulate in some way or another. Special mention must go to Ina Kruger who organizes my jumbled admin, Hanlie and Carine at the university library for fielding urgent requests, and Di Kilpert for her hard work in fixing my sometimes dodgy English. I still don’t get English grammar, and play it all by ear.

Many close friends became married: Willem and Zorada, Anne and Rohan and, this coming Saturday, Dieter and Marisa. Others found new jobs, or graduated (well done Wynand – now can I finally see some returns on my investment, please?), moved to a new city or into a new place, or welcomed new members to the family.  There was sad news too, and this year was the first time I had to preside over the funeral of a close family member. None of the ups and downs, though, would have been possible without the support of my wonderful wife, Helanya. She puts up with being woken (very) early and runs our little household like a “well-oiled machine”, while also having a full-time job with far more demands than mine. Thank you for the good memories.

On 2014, and the possibilities of 2015!

Written by Johan Fourie

December 16, 2014 at 09:09

The economics of apartheid

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Why did apartheid end? Who benefited from apartheid? What was the National Party ideology when it instituted apartheid? Why did the ANC government have so little room for redistribution when they were elected in 1994? These and many other vexing questions are answered in the December issue of Economic History of Developing Regions, a journal published by the Economic History Society of Southern Africa, in a special issue on the economics of apartheid. All 11 papers have now been published online. The introduction, written by Martine Mariotti and myself, spells out the reasons we decided for a special issue on the economics of apartheid twenty years after it was abolished:

It should surprise no one that the weight of our history hampers our attempts to create a prosperous society. This has been a constant theme in presidential State of the Nation addresses. Of the 25 such addresses since 1994 (two in election years), 20 have mentioned the word ‘apartheid’ at least once. In 2004 Thabo Mbeki, celebrating 10 years of democracy, said that ‘we have always known that our country’s blemishes produced by more than three centuries of colonialism and apartheid could not be removed in one decade’. In 2011 Jacob Zuma said that ‘the legacy of decades of apartheid underdevelopment and colonial oppression cannot be undone in only 17 years’. In more recent addresses, President Zuma has observed that ‘apartheid spatial patterns still persist in our towns and cities’ (2013), and that ‘the culture of violence originated from the apartheid past’ (2014).

The Economics of ApartheidResearchers confirm these views. Poverty levels remain high for black South Africans (Van der Berg 2011; Leibbrandt et al. 2012; Bhorat & Van der Westhuizen 2013; Gradín 2013), their educational attainment and health outcomes continue to lag behind those of white South Africans (Van der Berg 2007; Harris et al. 2011; Spaull 2013; Barbarin & Richter 2013), and unemployment, which was already increasing during the 1970s and 1980s, shows no signs of declining (Banerjee et al. 2008). The distrust and non-cooperation induced by apartheid persist to this day (Burns 2012).

While economists and policy-makers are rightly interested in addressing these consequences of apartheid that affect South Africa today, the task seems to have fallen to economic historians to discover precisely how policy decisions taken during the apartheid era determine the country’s economic growth in the twenty-first century. The stagnation in employment opportunities is a case in point. The shortage of semi-skilled workers caused by the apartheid regime’s statutory job reservation policy obliged manufacturers to overinvest in capital technology, with the result that South African manufacturing became capital intensive rather than labour intensive. The consequence for employment has been low levels of job creation at the unskilled level, precisely the level of skills that the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and subsequent policies had envisaged as being required.

Economic historians are interested in the economics of apartheid not just because apartheid continues to affect South Africans, but because we see analogous situations elsewhere today. Ethnic divisions remain a feature of our times worldwide, perhaps nowhere more overtly than in the continuing conflict between the Palestinian Independent Authority and Israel. Former American president Jimmy Carter (2006) famously called for ‘peace not apartheid’ in this region. In the US, discussions of poverty and inequality often reference apartheid (Massey & Denton 1993).

In South Africa, we continue to extract lessons that hold the promise of not repeating past mistakes. We look for clues to understanding ideologues and their ideologies (Giliomee 2013; Koorts 2014): can we find similarities between Afrikaner nationalism in the early twentieth century and black nationalism in the twenty-first? We investigate apartheid policy counterfactuals (Bhorat & Ravi Kanbur 2006) because they provide a sobering perspective on current trade-offs: should government focus on high quality education for a select few, or education for all, but of lower quality? And at the macroeconomic level we consider the global response to apartheid policies (Kaempfer and Lowenberg 1988; Moll 1991): do economic sanctions force a regime change, or do they instead strengthen the oppressor’s hand?

The good news is that we are getting better at understanding how the past affects us and recognizing analogies between past and present. With the tools of econometrics, South African economic history studies are adding a valuable quantitative analysis to the rich qualitative analysis that is growing larger each year (Fourie & Schirmer 2012). The digitization of data previously buried in archives and libraries is beginning to make the apartheid era more accessible. Studies of apartheid can contribute to important themes in the economic history literature, such as the longevity of institutions and path dependence (North 1990; David 1994; Acemoglu et al. 2005). The era provides natural experiments with which we can analyse human behaviour in response to distorted incentives. The benefit of such experiments is that the inferences drawn are causal (Diamond & Robinson 2010). And because South Africa’s twentieth-century experience is a microcosm of global development, with the incomes of rich and poor diverging, the apartheid and post-apartheid periods serve as an analogy for the process of globalization and the potential effects of greater integration (Dalby 1998).

This special issue brings together the work of economists and historians to showcase recent developments in the study of the economic history of apartheid. We hope that the papers will inspire scholars to continue to work on this topic, to explore underused data sets and to maintain the conversation about this definitive era in South Africa’s history.

It is especially exciting to see younger researchers tackling this tough research area. As we report in our contribution, newly digitised, micro-level South African data, often with spatial features, allow for much deeper insights into not only the South African past but in things that are important to social scientists in general, like the political economy of policy-making. We discuss, for example, the fascinating work of LSE PhD-student Ed Kerby, University of Illinois PhD-student Nicolas Bottan, Harvard PhD-student Martin Abel, UCLA PhD-student Katherine Eriksson, MIT PhD-student Daniel de Kadt and Columbia PhD-student Laurence Wilse-Samson. Their affiliations include some of the leading economics departments in the world. That alone should be an indication of the treasure-trove of research possibilities the apartheid period offers.

But challenges remain. Although some are South African, these PhD-students are all based at universities outside South Africa. They are also all white. Let’s hope that the excellent research being done by a younger generation of (foreign-based) economists can act as a catalyst to encourage South African students to delve into an economic past that will remain with us for some time to come.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 22, 2014 at 11:37

On the economic histories of developing regions

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EHDRFrom the start of 2014, Leigh Gardner and I are editors of Economic History of Developing Regions, a journal dedicated to publish scholarly papers about the economic histories of developing countries. For our first issue as editors, we have put together a short note, now an LSE working paper, on an issue we believe requires attention: the lack of publication outputs in the top economic history journals about developing country topics, and from developing country authors. Here’s the abstract:

The internationalization of economic history is everywhere except in the publication outputs. Using a new dataset of publications in the top four economic history journals, we investigate this puzzle and attempt to explain why relatively few papers on and from developing countries are published in top journals despite the growing internationalization of economic history more broadly. We find little evidence to suggest that this is due to a bias against papers on developing country topics and by developing country authors. Developing country papers and authors also do not perform worse in citation analyses. Authors from developing countries, it seems, are less productive, or discouraged from submitting their papers to top quality journals, choosing instead local journals.

I was amazed to find that there was hardly an increase over the last decade in the number of papers on developing countries. My sense is that, at least since 2000, there is a much greater appetite and enthusiasm for developing country topics. As we mention in the paper, some of the most prominent papers in the field have been on developing country topics – think AJR (2001), Nunn (2008), Dell (2010). Networks in African, Latin American, Asian and Eastern European economic history have either been established or have seen an increase in its activities and membership.  The World Economic History Congress, held in Stellenbosch in 2012, contributed to the renaissance of African economic history and focused attention on the economic histories of developing countries in general. A survey by Baten and Muschallik (2012) shows that there are large numbers of economic historians based in the developing world.

Yet, despite all these improvements, the share of papers dealing with developing countries have hardly changed over the last 15 years. Even more worryingly, the share of papers written by scholars outside Western universities (including Japan), is tiny; only 2.2% who published papers in the top four economic history journals were affiliated to universities in the developing world.

There are several reasons for this. Leigh and I note that the priorities of scholars in developing countries are often biased towards teaching and consulting work, rather than research.  Where research do receive priority, it prefers quantity (local) over quality (international) output. Language and a preference to speak to a local rather than international audience, especially in Asia and Latin America, is also an issue. While these factors apply to all fields of research, economic history may have additional constraints. Economic history is a luxury good; the digitisation and transcription of historical sources are expensive exercises, which limits its appeal in underfunded universities. Also, economic history is, sadly, not always at the front of the queue for policy-relevant analysis; when appointments are made or funding granted, research on education, poverty or trade may seem to yield more immediate returns than investigations into the economic past.

Sparked by the rapid economic growth of nearly all developing regions, though, I suspect that, over the next decade, we will see a flourishing of interest in the economic histories of developing countries. That is why Leigh and I are excited to be part of EHDR (and why we want you to submit your paper). Most of this interest, however, will come from scholars based at European or US universities. It is here that the techniques and networks are developed that is so important in the academic publication business. (In a recent NBER working paper, Peter Temin gives a succinct overview of the development of these techniques.) But, if Economic History hopes to increase its influence, it should make more effort in nurturing links with scholars in the developing world. The immediate gains may be less visible, but the long-term benefits, for developing countries and for the discipline, may be far more rewarding.

Written by Johan Fourie

May 20, 2014 at 06:33

Experiencing history

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The South African Economic History Annual, a new publication by the Economic History Society of Southern Africa, was published today. The Annual brings together news of recent and upcoming events, ideas and research by scholars across several disciplines (and hopefully this will expand in future), and one or two personal accounts and interviews.

2012 was a great year for economic history research in Africa. The World Economic History Congress was held in Africa for the first time and, as Sophia du Plessis writes, shifted the focus to African economic histories neglected for too long. New data sources are being unearthed and digitised, more South African universities are offering undergraduate or graduate programmes in economic history, and several South African students are enrolled in economic history programmes abroad.

As Africa’s future prospects brighten, so does the interest in African economic history.

But, as regular readers of this blog would know, economic history is not only about things that happened in the past. Development is a process – a non-linear, staccato process of trial and error – that fits the mercury-in-the hand cliché very well: as soon as we seem to be closer to describing it, understanding it, explaining it, the development process inevitably changes, affected by time, terrain and technology. It is constantly changing, and although our past affects our present (and there are several reasons to understand this), our present will in all likelihood affect our future in very different ways. Which is all the more reason why economic historians can ill afford to cosily hide in ivory towers, sneaking out for a quick trip to the archives. Or to only travel from comfy conference to conference, presenting our work to (predominantly) Western scholars with the (exclusive) aim of publishing in the top journals. (Not that it’s a bad thing to publish in those journals, given the increasingly important tenure and/or ratings incentives.)

But Felix Meier zu Selhausan’s fascinating account of his experience at Mountains of the Moon University in Western Uganda is a reminder that economic history – in addition to its research and teaching component – should also be experienced. Felix has spent the last two years at MMU, a seven year old university funded by the local community, teaching various undergraduate courses and, over a few beers in Stellenbosch a while ago, he explained to me how he has seen the difference tertiary education has made. Not measured, not surveyed, not deduced from national census data. Seen. Isn’t that more gratifying than any journal publication? Incidentally, by physically being there, Felix also stumbled upon some very unique datasets that will help his own research – and begin to shed new light on Uganda’s colonial (and, potentially, pre-colonial) period.

Not everyone has two years to spend in the Pearl of Africa. But perhaps we – and I’m actually referring here mostly to economists like myself – should make an effort to engage more with the communities we investigate. I suspect the learning curve will be much steeper, and more rewarding.

PS: The Mountains of the Moon University would appreciate support, in whatever format. Books, exchanges, funding. Send Felix a mail if you have any ideas.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 29, 2012 at 20:16