There’s a lot of chatter in the blogosphere about Westerners’ perceptions of Africa, and how poorly they align with Africans’ own views of the challenges their societies face.
This week I’m in Oxford, for the annual conference on “Economic Development in Africa” at the Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE) . The CSAE conference is unique among top-tier development econ conferences in that it brings together a huge number of scholars based in African universities and research institutes — as well as people like me, non-Africans working on the economics of Africa.
Looking at the conference program, I thought this might be a good testing ground for this hypothesis about African and Westerners’ divergent priorities. Do the research topics of African and non-African scholars working on economic development in Africa align?
I decided to take a closer look at the set of 264 papers presented at the conference. Richard Payne (the CSAE’s IT director, who crafted the conference program and website) kindly shared the spreadsheet underlying the program, with a field indicating the continent-or-origin for the submitting author, and the thematic area they submitted their paper to. Here’s what the data show:
It’s a bit hard to draw firm conclusions here, given the large number of topic categories. But if you squint a little (and group topics into broad conceptual categories), what strikes me is the following: African scholars are disproportionately interested in labour (i.e., jobs), firms (possibly jobs again), and monetary policy. Non-African scholars are disproportionately interested in political economy, conflict, natural resources, and (an outlier) migration. Roughly speaking, there’s a division between jobs-focused papers by African researchers and papers by non-Africans focused on institutions.
Also, it’s hard to pass up mentioning that “aid” is a much bigger priority for non-African than African researchers.
Between sessions this morning, I mentioned this pattern to another conference attendee — Bob Rijkers from the World Bank — who asked, sensibly, is this just driven by the CSAE’s own acceptance and rejection decisions?
So I went back to Richard and asked for the full (anonymized) set of paper submissions — over a thousand papers in total. Sure enough, the pattern looks quite different:
There are fewer large differences between African and non-African priorities in the full set of submissions. Labour is still a much higher priority for African researchers, but so are poverty and agriculture. On the other end, rather than institutions, it seems there are a lot of non-African researchers working on Africa who focus disproportionately on intra-household issues, risk, and social networks. Interestingly, conflict remains a much more popular topic for non-African than African researchers.
I’m curious what others make of these patterns? Scanning the categories in the graph, am I right to see systematic patterns, or does this strike people as random noise? If the patterns are systematic, I’m also curious what the dynamic relationship looks like: comparing across years, are African papers converging to the non-African topics on the Western academic frontier, or are Western researchers listening to their African colleagues who may be closer to the policy dialogue in their respective countries? Maybe that’s another blog post.
You are right to see patterns, Justin, but your interpretation is missing some key factors. Most notably, ask yourself this: what top journal is going to publish a paper on institutions by someone at an African university? It would have to be much better than anything from someone in the States just to get past a desk rejection. Also, where do these researchers get their funding? Usually not from university slush funds or big grant agencies but often from governments or policy-oriented donor funding. Quite rightly this kind of funding doesn’t go to speculative ‘frontier’ work on institutions (for example). Finally, amplifying the funding problem there is the issue that standards are lower in African universities in terms of what are considered ‘good publications’ and many researchers unfortunately respond to this somewhat opportunistically by doing fairly unoriginal work using easily available data; labour, poverty, monetary policy, etc. On developed country researchers’ side, very few researchers care much about policy problems of developing countries and much more about what types of research will further their own careers in developed country universities. Not that they don’t care at all, but we know how the lexicographic ordering goes. So, there are differences in interests but incentives and disincentives play a very big role.
AfricanEcon — You raise an interesting point about the different incentives faced by African and non-African researchers.
I’m guessing that if we had polled the conference attendees, most of the non-Africans would get most of their income from a fixed salary, but face strong promotion and prestige incentives to publish in peer-reviewed academic journals.
In contrast, most of the economists I know working in African universities and research institutes have low fixed salaries and get a big fraction of their income from ad hoc consultancies with aid donors.
I don’t know if this “explains” the patterns above directly, but you’re right that we should probably see these outcomes as a reflection of preferences and incentives combined, not just divergent priorities.
I think you could make a case that there is some response to policy priorities here – Western policy is concerned with aid, and how to make aid is used well and not stolen (hence institutions), whereas African governments are concerned with more immediate and tangible issues on the ground like jobs and poverty. Also I imagine the intra-household/risk/networks stuff comes from CSAE students and affiliates given the specialism of various senior researchers in those areas.
Lee– I think you’re right that the non-African focus on risk, social networks and intra-household issues is probably a function of this conference being in Oxford (or, at least, in Europe as opposed to the U.S.). You could probably make the same argument about conflict given Paul’s history working on this.
But I’d guess (and I’m really just guessing) that if you took out the Oxford effect and compared the papers at, say, NEUDC — where few if any attendees are based in Africa — you’d find even less overlap with the African priorities here. African policymakers’ concerns with labor markets, growth, and monetary policy just don’t seem to be of interest to academic development econ right now.
The most important point here is your final one – who is listening to whom?
I’m not so sure about using the phrase: “much higher priority”. There were only 264 papers presented in total and you quote the differences in percents. Of course you will have smaller percent differences if you look at more papers (papers submitted), that’s just the nature of statistics. Also, consider how many papers are in each bar. Remember, 50 papers on a particular topic will be expected to have an error of about 14%. Perhaps if you were to order the papers by topic we might notice a meaningful systematic trend, but I suspect that ordering them by percent difference tends to make the result appear more significant than it is. My sense is that this is reading (statistical) tea leaves which sometimes tend to play tricks on us.
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Really interesting results. Interpretation is a bit difficult when the results are in differences between groups – should we read 0% as many papers of equal weight by both groups or no papers and not a priority for anyone?
Would stacked bars sorted by these differences tell us anything more? More interesting would be the topics with many papers by both groups and the topics where we are “talking past” each other on different topics.