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​”Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong” – YSI discussion with Morten Jerven


On February 3, 2016, Dr. Morten Jerven joined the YSI Economic Development Group to present his new book “Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong”.

“Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong” – YSI discussion with Morten Jerven

On February 3, 2016, Dr. Morten Jerven joined the YSI Economic Development Group in a webinar (click here to access it) to discuss his new book “Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong”. He gave a short presentation of the main arguments he makes in this book with reference to his previous book “Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about it”. The presentation was followed by a lively Q&A.

Participants had the following comments on the event:

Maria Dyveke Styve: “Thanks for organising, it was a really interesting seminar! My main take-away was definitively his point on the lack of good, reliable data, and the need for proper historical analysis when doing economic history (that would live up to the standards ofthe discipline of history too). Also thought it was good that he mentioned the problem of the increasing distance between researchers and the economies in question, and the absurdity of economists on the other side of the globe downloading (faulty) datasets and making sweeping policy recommendations based on regressions without knowing much more about the economies they´re analyzing. Thanks again for the seminar!”

Sara Tayor: “In his work, Morten Jerven is providing a much-needed critical take on data quality and reliability amidst the data revolution and increasingly reliance on evidence-based policy. This presentation stressed his point about data quality, or lack thereof, while adding an important discussion of the need for context in understanding and analyzing the data we have. As he rightly noted, we should study economies not economics.”

Oliver Braunschweig: “It was a very good presentation with a clear and convincing argumentation. One of the noteworthy aspects that I’ll take away is how important it is to get not only good data but also to understand the contexts from which those data points come. Simplybecause we can measure the same thing across many countries (like GDP growth, or unemployment), it does not follow that even in vastly different economies the best policy advice will be the same. The history and context of a given country is highly important to find good, fitting policy. And it seems to me that the same logic that Morten Jerven is making about how Africa has been treated by a large part of Economic literature (it’s failing because it’s not developing as well as European countries) might well be seen in other areas as well (the poor in a given country are poor because they do not behave like the rich do, etc). It highlights the importance of making economics from the point of view of those studied in their respective realities. Focusing too much on the existing data to guide us, it is very easy to forget the different contexts out of which we extracted the data , but exactly those parts of reality not captured by our data points might hold the key to good policy advice.

Mariko Siegert: “Studying psychology and being passionate about increasing people’s capacity through systemic changes, what resonated with me was the image (literally and figuratively) of ‘helpless Africa.’ With abundance of resources, I believe Africa has a lot of potential and capacity. Diseases, political and economic instabilities (e.g., reduction of the work force, damage to the infrastructure, etc.) will be threats to its development, but basing our ways of aiding it on such an image would probably compromise the effectiveness of the interventions, even with good intentions. The power differentials between the developed and developing countries can be transferred in many ways - how we conduct our research, how we try to communicate with local people, what we decide and more importantly, who decides. Reflecting on, and studying, the history that has led to the current assumptions we may have about ‘Africa’ with no to little variability, I think, is definitely important in constructing effective aid approaches that would elicit the people’s capacities and more autonomous development of the continent.”

Genet Zinabou: “There are two things that stood out to me during the discussion with Jerven:
a) His concern that economic historians (which includes anyone studying past economic events and relationships) are not up-to-date on the historical consensus on the topics they are studying nor are adequately trained in the methods used by historians to appraise the quality of historical data sources. Jerven mentioned a number of economics articles that are well-regarded by the economics discipline that he believes use data sources that “no historian would touch” and draw conclusions that are inconsistent with the existing historical literature on the topic. This struck me as quite an urgent call for increased cooperation between economics and other disciplines.
b) Morten’s insistence that the role of “institutions” in explaining Africa’s growth experience is exaggerated (external factors may matter more) and misrepresented; he argued that instead of accepting the predominant narrative that Africa “lacks” the institutions necessary for growth, researchers trying to understand the continent’s growth experiences (which have been both positive and negative) should study how the existing institutions function (since it is untrue that there is an institutional vacuum) and what factors shaped the formation of these structures.”

Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven: Jerven pointed to many crucial flaws in how Africa has been studied by economists. For example, he criticizes economists’ lumping together of all African countries and their tendency to look at the continent’s average growth over the past half century, instead of acknowledging vast differences in economic development experiences across countries and between time periods. I sympathize greatly with his general critique of economic methodology, which can actually be applied to how neoclassical economists approach the study of economics in general, not just in their approach to Africa. I do think, however, that to a certain extent Jerven approaches the economics discipline in the same way that he accuses economists of approaching Africa: He claims ‘economists’ get it wrong in Africa, without acknowledging that different schools of thought and economic methods do exist. Perhaps this is not so surprising, considering how dominant neoclassical economics has become. Nonetheless, I hope Jerven’s critique leads to a more critical and pluralistic approach to the study of African economies!