Workshop on African History and Economics Description

The past decade or two has witnessed the rise of the New Economic History with comparative studies of economic performance that have juxtaposed Africa side by side with other world regions. The result has been to draw Africa into comparative analysis without Africa driving the research agenda. This intersects with growing interest in emerging economies and in Africa’s recent growth acceleration, the dynamics of which are not well understood. The New Economic History has drawn attention to the importance of institutions and underscored the reality that Africa’s growth and development challenges are among other things a crises of institutions. Africa has caught the attention of Western financial institutions. In the past decade or so, six out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world were in Africa, and Africa has grown faster than Asia in eight out of the last ten years. That Africa is benefiting from a commodity boom is clearly evident, and prices for gold and oil have reached some of the highest on record in the past decade. Whether Africa has undergone qualitative structural change that could make this commodity boom the basis of an economic takeoff is being debated. The World Bank has recently emphasized growth in African fiscal competence, and the fact that Africa came out of the 2008 global financial crisis much better than was anticipated.[1] The jury is still out whether Africa’s brain-gain in the past decade or so has contributed to this technical competence, and how to factor the African Diaspora into Africa’s development plans more broadly. Non-mineral exporting countries like Ethiopia are also experiencing fast growth based on strong agricultural exports. In 2009, China surpassed the World Bank as Africa’s most important donor and has also become Africa’s largest trading partner, highlighting the importance of South-South trade. The past year has witnessed several academic conferences or seminar series and special issues of magazines around the world on the theme “Africa rising.”[2] We need new tools and concepts to better understand Africa’s changing economies. We need research on African entrepreneurship and African businesses. There is an interest in writing the history of business and firms in Africa, and the past decade has seen important work by scholars such as Chibuike Uche on Shell and Nigeria, and Dmitri van den Bersselaar on the operations of Unilever (UK) and Bols Distilleries of the Netherlands in West Africa. We need to interrogate institutions in Africa over the longue durée as Robert Bates, James Robinson, Daron Acemoglu, Raul Sanchez de la Sierra and others are doing and create space for institutional reform and innovation with an African imprint.

African countries have begun to investigate ways to target academic training towards the needs of industry. African policy makers and business people have turned to the academic community for insight, and we believe Harvard should be at the forefront of the production of knowledge about Africa’s economies in the 21st century. With limited resources, even with deficit financing, which sectors should African governments prioritize that have knock-on effects for growth? What are the implications for African economies in the ongoing transition from agriculture to the service sector without the intermediary sector of manufacturing? This workshop seeks to provide a forum for cutting edge work on African economic history and economics, and to facilitate dialogue between academic researchers, international development agencies and policy makers, and business people. We need a clearer understanding of African dynamics and the economic terrain. There is even no agreement on the reliability of African economic statistics and national accounting, as the works of Douglas Rimmer and, more recently, Morten Jerven have argued. There is a sharp disjuncture between indicators of growth and lived reality within many African countries, and significant wealth disparities across rural-urban, gender and class divides. Political corruption remains intractable and databases such as the Afrobarometer measure the social, political and economic atmosphere in Africa, examining key issues such as the impact of corruption on institutional trust and economic performance. How do we incorporate Africa’s growing number of trade and investment partners within the present political and economic landscape? The current international preoccupation with China in Africa obscures the changing face of Asian investment and trade in Africa, for India, Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan had been bigger players in several African countries before China's rise. Talk about China has displaced also an increasing investment by Arab Gulf countries in Africa, especially in Eastern and Southern Africa, as seen in the work of Mina Baliamoune-Lutz and Mwangi wa Githinji.

[1] Shanta Devarjan and Sudhir Shetty, “Africa: Leveraging the Crisis into a Development Takeoff,” Economic Premise, The World Bank, No. 30 (Sept. 2010), pp. 1-4.

[2] “Africa Rising” The Economist (December 3, 2011); “Africa Rising,” TIME Magazine (December 3, 2012).


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