Students from developing countries would, one would think, be the ones studying development economics.  But, often, development studies is the science of studying the rear view mirror.  The British study the Indians, the Indians study the Gulf states, and so on.  We used to study those we worried about in a paternalistic, humanitarian context; today, we often study those who we fear may eclipse us economically (most strikingly evident when one peruses titles of dissertations concerning China from 1970 to present).  Occasionally, due to either ease or introspection, people study their home countries.  But, rarely are students in these programs from the countries that need development experts most desperately.


In the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics, the BRIC countries are well-represented.  We have a Ph.D. student from Brazil, another from India, and multiple students with roots in China.  When I was writing my master’s degree at the University of Chicago, many of the students were Chinese or Indian; I never met a student born in sub-Saharan Africa.  I now live in Uganda and we do have one (albeit British-) Ugandan in our program at the LSE.  But what prevents more students from bottom-quartile countries from studying development economics, and, when they do study these topics, why do they not then take these lessons home as policymakers?

To put it bluntly: Will development economists continue to be, nearly without exception, white consultants on southbound airplane flights?

The Case of African Students

At a café on a dusty road closer to Juba than Kampala, I discussed the question of African students with a colleague.  Certainly, she was right: part of the problem is the poor quality of educational systems in many African countries.  In northern Uganda, I’ve taught dozens of people what the concept of a “percentage” is and I’ve yet to meet an adult in northern Uganda able to perform the sort of arithmetic one might expect from a secondary school student, let alone the mathematics needed to enter an economics programme at a university level.

But, even for those rare people with the mathematical skills to contemplate the contemporary problems of development economics, other things stand in the way.  The black Ugandan passport is slightly more useful than a bus pass; it requires a visa for travel to the vast majority of countries, and these visa applications are often denied.  This Ugandan experience of difficult international travel is the norm among Africans.

For those lucky enough to get visas, they must then pay tuition and the cost of living in expensive cities like Boston (Harvard), Chicago (University of Chicago), London (LSE), and so on.  The cost of living in these cities is a substantial multiple of the cost of living in African communities – the rent for the modest one-bedroom apartment I lived in during my first year as a doctoral student cost more per week than many Ugandans earn in a year.  And that’s only rent, not to mention food, transport, healthcare, technology (laptops, mobile phones, etc.), and other costs.

 Chile and the Chicago Boys

How, then, did one of the most famous cases of “indigenous development economists” happen?

For those unfamiliar with the story, a small group of Chileans studied under Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger in the 1970’s.  During this time, the Chileans (known in policy circles and among economists as the “Chicago Boys”) learned economic analysis and economic policy at the University of Chicago, but also generally adopted Chicago’s neoliberal philosophy (an aspect of the project criticized by some development economists and economic historians).

The programme was ambitious in its size and scope – over one hundred Chileans attended the University of Chicago in advanced degree programmes in various departments, including Economics, the School of Public Policy, and the Graduate School of Business, many receiving scholarships from the Ford Foundation.  The curriculum, was non-traditional, too, and included macroeconomic coursework on growth that today would be termed “development macroeconomics” alongside political economy work that at the time was still called “peasant studies.”  Influential work in the liberal literature on development and peasant issues was scarce, with Popkin’s The Rational Peasant not appearing until late in the decade.

By the end of the programme in 1970, Chile arguably had more intellectual firepower in economics than any other developing country.  Though many parties still endorsed vaguely Marxist platforms or so-called “two step” nationalisation schemes, the popularity of market-based solutions among Chile’s intelligentsia spread quickly.  A policy community that had been absent in Chile in the 1960’s quickly evolved and survives today in the form of legacy policy exchange programmes between Santiago and major thinktanks in London and Washington.

African Economics: Macro Home Improvement

To say that African problems – such as the inflation underway in the Kenyan and Ugandan shilling as I write this – are a problem of policy-setting is to overlook the ingredients needed for good policy.  While governance is important, and no doubt broken in much of Africa, equally important is the human capital available to be put toward the problems of the day (which are overwhelmingly either economic or inextricably intertwined with the economy).

African policymakers must realise that underinvestment in African education is widespread, crippling, and eventually fatal.  One cannot solve problems he cannot recognise; one cannot cure what he cannot diagnose.  Educating the Continent is a noble goal and a worthwhile dream, but creating a small cadre of highly-trained people in economics, financial engineering, and other key disciplines is a prerequisite to this widespread education.

I look across the northern Ugandan border at the young government (and young population) of South Sudan and I wonder from where the expertise to drive its growth will come.  I look southwest, toward Rwanda, a country torn apart by domestic armies and rebuilt by international consultants.  Asking even the top economists within many African countries to remove barriers to development is like telling a teenager to remove his appendix with a grapefruit spoon – it’s hard to know where to start and the chances of success with the tools available are discouragingly low.

I hope that, within my lifetime, Africa can draw on its own expertise to solve the development economics problems it faces which are, without question, difficult problems that will not be solved overnight.  In the meantime, we in the international community must be realistic about the tools available in the region and realistic about the fact that we are the ones controlling the institutions (international organisations, investment banks, top universities, etc.) that can sharpen those tools.

While it is important to have “world one” observers looking for fraud at African ballot boxes, it is equally important to have observers looking for promising candidates at admissions offices.  Yes, Africans must invest in human capital and nurture an indigenous community of experts – but we must recognise that we are necessary brokers for that investment.  And, potentially, fellow long-term beneficiaries.