Placing People at the Heart of African Economics

capeIn January 2016, Greive Chelwa joined the Harvard University Center for African Studies as an African Studies Postdoctoral Fellow. An economist by trade, Chelwa explores the importance of putting people at the heart of his work in the piece below:

It’s common for economists to describe their work as falling into one type of economics. There are "industrial economists”, “labor economists”, “macroeconomists”, “behavioral economists”, “trade economists”, “development economists”, “growth economists”, “health economists" and so on. Whereas demarcating terrain in this way is understandable — for instance in stressing different types of methodological approaches — it can and has caused economists to lose sight of the forest for the trees. For example, for a long time, trade economists only concerned themselves with so-called “efficiency gains" from increased international trade and globalization. This singular focus neglected  the plight of millions of workers whose lives were being disrupted by increased exposure to the forces of globalization. We now know that many of the political problems that Western democracies are currently contending with have much to do with this oversight. 

I always think of the type of economics I do, irrespective of the methodological approaches or the topics of inquiry, as development economics... Thinking of my work in this way forces me to place the concerns of people, particularly the poor, at the center of the research questions I choose to pursue.

Perhaps as a result of the fact that I come from a developing country where millions of people are poor, or perhaps because of the fact that all of my economics training was done on the African continent, I always think of the type of economics I do, irrespective of the methodological approaches or the topics of inquiry, as development economics. That is, all economics for me is development economics. Thinking of my work in this way forces me to place the concerns of people, particularly the poor, at the center of the research questions I choose to pursue. After all, this is what I signed up for 14 years ago when I decided to pursue economics as a career at the University of Zambia. 

Nija Money

All of my research projects are inspired by this “people-centered” approach. For example, my colleagues and I are currently researching the effectiveness of a monetary incentive scheme that aims to attract and retain teachers to rural areas in Zambia, where teachers have historically been in short supply. We are, however, going beyond just looking at whether "money matters" –to thinking and asking broader questions about what it means to be a poor teacher in rural Zambia and considering the accompanying hardships. Such a broader intellectual approach is likely to yield better insights especially for Zambian policymakers than just saying that “money matters” or “money doesn’t matter.” A second project goes beyond standard efficiency/inefficiency justifications for subsidies and argues that the Farmer Input Support Program (FISP), an agricultural subsidy program targeted at small-scale and subsistence farmers in Zambia, has had transformative effects on the lives of poor rural farmers. Again, such an analysis gives a more complete picture than limiting the conversation to whether the program is “efficient" or “inefficient".

My hope is that I never lose sight of the forest for the trees in my career as an academic economist.