The Economics profession has long been too white, too male, too Western-centric, and too hostile to non-mainstream approaches. Today, a new tool – the D-Econ Database – is being launched to address this.
“All the women were busy.” “There are no people of color working on this topic.” “It’s the male-dominated field that’s the problem, not this particular panel.” We needed big names and all the big names just happen to be white men based in the Global North.”
We’ve all heard these excuses many times over. Women, minorities, and scholars from the Global South are severely underrepresented in the field of Economics – and that makes putting together panels that do not simply reproduce the dominant identities in the field a challenge. The high concentration of a few dominant identities in the Economics field has rightly led to outrage against all-white and all-male panels .
It is becoming increasingly accepted that this underrepresentation is not simply an issue of fewer women, minorities, and scholars from the Global South choosing not to be a part of the field. On the contrary, research shows that there are systemic biases that make it more difficult for economists who are not white, not male, and not based in the Global North, to be heard. An additional layer of discrimination has to do with approach. Indeed, Economics is “unique among the social sciences in having a single monolithic mainstream, which is either unaware of or actively hostile to alternative approaches” (King, 2013: 17).
There appears to be a growing echo, slowly reverberating around the world, that, for good, ill, or both, Africa is the future, a harbinger of Europe’s history-to-come. Experts may debate the reasons for this: among them, a significant population bulge heavily skewed toward youth; an urban “revolution” unique in the current era; burgeoning consumer markets, rising middle classes, and accelerating techno-development; also, a propensity to repurpose material practices both foreign and homegrown, thus to remake modernity for late modern times. Says Keith Hart (2017:2), basing his prediction on the long historical relationship between demography and economy, “Sooner or later, Africa and Europe will change rank order.” The former – Africa, the continent that once signified the West’s prehistoric past and remains a perennial “basket case” in the jaundiced eyes of Euro-America – is now frequently taken to prefigure what lies ahead for humanity at large.
A decade or so ago, our Theory from the South explored this proposition and its implications for the social sciences, one of them being that Africa, as an “ex-centric” location (Bhabha 1994) and ground-zero of the Global South, has become a privileged axis from which to theorize the emerging world order of the twenty-first century. In so doing, it provoked a great deal of argument and, among northern intellectuals unused to the idea that their hemisphere may not be the font of all knowledge and theory-work, frank skepticism.
Books abound on what is wrong with economics (Chang 2014; Keen 2011; Nelson 2018, Mazzucato 2018, Raworth 2018, Stanford 2015), and what we would have to do to change it. Given the little change we have seen in economics training and policy-effective economic thinking since the global finance crisis of 2007/08, and in light of the global environmental, inequality and health crises, it is to be seen whether these interventions can make any meaningful impact. What is good though: Half of these impactful books were written by female economists. Despite this ‘wind of change’ in an overtly male discipline, it is striking that these books still offer a glaring lacuna: the issues of race and racism (except for brief mentions in Nelson 2018 and Stanford 2015). For many people around the world, these are no mere ‘issues’, but integral to their daily struggles and experiences in White majority countries. These are part of a differentiated life– a life differentiated so much that it can be full of unrealized potentials, suffering and trauma, physical harm and violence, and premature death in the worst of cases. Therefore, while we could move on, building on these interventions and many others (e.g., Obeng-Odoom 2020; Sarr 2019 or here), to discuss what would have to change in economic thinking (which includes economics training), policy and praxis to help achieve a “safe and just operating space for humanity” (Raworth 2018), the goal of this blog entry is more firmly tied to the question of how economic thinking would change if race and racism were taken seriously as structural-relational problems?
Much of economic thinking happens via economics. Therefore, my entry will often refer to economics as an institutionalized field. That said, expertise about the economy is not just rooted in economics. In fact, economists should not hold an intellectual monopoly over explaining how the economy works and should work (even though many of them, ironically, seem to appreciate that monopoly). That is why I as an economic geographer dare write this post. Pluralizing the economy, economics and economic thinking are separate but still interconnected projects. Some of the arguments that follow apply to other disciplines, too. Nevertheless, economics is singular among the social sciences in terms of its socio-demographic homogeneity (at least in countries of the Global North), prestige, student intake volumes, policy influence and partial self-isolation from other disciplines. It thus deserves particular scrutiny.
So what would an economics that takes race and racism seriously as structural-relational problems have to look like? To what kind of epistemic and institutional practices would it have to commit itself in an effort to effectively engage with these lived realities? A partial answer is already provided by economists who do study race and racism in a field called stratification economics, not to be mixed up with the so-called economics of discrimination that is largely rooted in a neoclassical economics framework. Building on some the insights of the former, and adding a few more perspectives, we can call for at least 10 ways of how to challenge the broader field of economics (i.e. variants of neoclassical and behavioural economics, but much more than that, as we saw above!) via race and racism.
COVID-19 exposes the deadly dominance of neoclassical economics in Africa.
On February 24, 2021 Ghana received a vaccine shipment (600,000 doses), the first to sub-Saharan Africa under the COVAX facility. It amounted to a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions needed on a continent increasingly ravaged by the pandemic. Contrast this to the tens of millions already vaccinated in the UK and US. The optimism that Africa would be spared by “early lockdown”, “less dense population, “the effect of ultraviolet”, “a climate that meant people spent more time outside” and “Africa’s youthful population” has rapidly faded. Officially there are now more than 100,000 deaths on the continent, but the real numbers are much higher due to the paucity of testing and the lack of capacity to accurately track and evaluate causes of mortality.
The shortage of tests and vaccines are exacerbated by the West’s hyper-nationalism restricting the import of these two vital tools to combat the pandemic. The same forces have also generated a scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE), the lack of monoclonal antibody and other treatments, and terrible shortages of medical oxygen so vital to keeping people alive. How is it possible, 60 years after independence, for African countries to be so highly dependent on the goodwill of the outside world for basic health goods? A good deal of the answer lies in the pathology of economics and related policies, which have spread like a pandemic globally and have come to dominate both the West and the continent of Africa. How did this come about? How does it relate to the strategies that have undermined African capacities to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the health and welfare of its people? And what should be done?
This book is a tribute to Sam Moyo. Apart from the great mind and big heart that he was, Moyo was also one of a few in our age to distinguish himself in setting new standards for knowledge production in the social sciences. Some might expect such a feat to require the approval of established centers of learning in the North. But his litmus test was relevance to the tectonic shifts underway in Africa and the South since decolonization. Moyo became a leading light in the quest for epistemic sovereignty at a crucial juncture, when Africa and the South as a whole were succumbing to neoliberal adjustment, and when his own country, Zimbabwe, was gaining independence.
Who was Sam Moyo?
Moyo belonged to the generation of Pan-Africanist intellectuals responsible for defending the gains of liberation and devising strategies of epistemic survival in the midst of structural adjustment. Their epicenter was the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), of which Sam eventually became president. He distinguished himself by his relentless drive to build and defend research capacities in Africa, refusing the lure of professional stability and fame abroad. Those who had the good fortune to meet him would affirm that he pursued this mission with flair, generosity, and a ‘charming inflexibility’ on matters of ideology. In 2002, he founded the African Institute for Agrarian Studies (AIAS), in Harare, Zimbabwe, against all odds, in the midst of radical land reform and Western sanctions.
Moyo also forged ahead with the building of new solidarities across the South to recuperate a common front. This he did via CODESRIA, as well the Third World Forum (TWF) and World Forum for Alternatives (WFA) led by Samir Amin, in which he participated over many years. In the 2000s, he also spearheaded the Agrarian South Network (ASN), a new tri-continental initiative with its own research agenda, regular activities, and publishing outlet, Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy. Those of us who were closest to him knew that the whole of this work of art was much larger than the sum of its parts: new epistemic standards were being set for generations to come.
We locate Moyo’s trajectory in the Pan-Africanist tradition of political economy, where we made significant contributions to the evolving land, agrarian and national questions at continental level and in his home country. In the introductory chapter of the book, we trace his overall contribution to tri-continental solidarity in the social sciences and the development of a global research agenda. We bring to light Moyo’s leading role in the frontlines of the struggle for epistemic sovereignty in Africa and the South at a time when neoliberal restructuring set its sights on autonomous knowledge production and when epistemological questions succumbed to a potent ‘cultural turn’. Moyo fought with great perseverance for autonomous institutions in Africa and the South and for the integrity of the intellectual traditions produced in the struggles for liberation. He defended an approach to political economy which was homegrown in Africa and fundamentally anti-imperialist, against Western intellectual trends, whether materialist or culturalist. This was the vision and mission that defined his Pan-Africanism, tri-continental solidarity, and cosmopolitanism.
Writing about Indigenous rights or climate and environmental justice movements as a non-Indigenous person is difficult and complex. The magnitude of difficulty becomes manifold if the authorial voice falls somewhere on the white, western knowledge spectrum. What we have to say matters less than what we have learned in thinking with the Indigenous people and their knowledge forms. For non-Indigenous scholars, there is a constant need to be alert to the possibilities of reproducing colonial power structures and epistemic frameworks while engaged in knowledge production. The only way out of this conundrum is to constantly learn from Indigenous voices and epistemologies and be sensitive to structural inequities and epistemic injustices that have marred the academe. It is not adequate to merely provide nodding acknowledgement to the idea of environmental justice. Interrogating the colonial and settler colonial structures within environmental movements must be a continuous process. Particularly, the idea of Indigenous environmental justice is yet to assume the place it deserves in the literature on environmentalisms, environmental activism, or even Marxist ecology. While Black-Green solidarity and alliance is an indispensable condition for the flourishing of the environmental movements, the work towards achieving it has been disappointingly slow. These concerns resurfaced as I read Andreas Malm’s new work How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
This post was originally published on Menelique Magazine, issue #3 and menelique.com.
#Black Lives Matter highlights the suppression of black lives in all aspects of society, but the public interest in the movement has been limited to systemic state racism involving the brutality of white police officers against black people. The visible and visceral discriminations in the public domain are serious and warrant such interest and concern, but this focus leaves out several other issues that are of interest to the movement.
The intellectual marginalisation of black people is one of such relatively overlooked areas. When black intellectual suppression is recognised, it is commonly held to be a mere supply problem. In this sense, black people produce little or no knowledge, there are few or no serious black scholars to engage, or the work of black scholars is not good enough. Conventional indices appear to bear out such claims. From 1987 to 2016, for example, a World Bank report suggests that the share of Africa’s contribution to the global pool of scientific knowledge as measured by scientific databases such as Web of Science declined from 1 to under 1 per cent.
This summer, we take stock of the most interesting economics-related books that have been released over the past year. Every year, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times makes a similar list. However, by his own admission, he only reads within the tradition of his own training in mainstream economics. While his 2019 summer list includes several excellent books, such as The Case for People’s Quantitative Easing by Frances Coppola and The Sex Factor by Victoria Bateman, we are still struck by the strong white-male-mainstream-Western bias in Wolf’s list, with the books almost all written by white (20/21) men (18/21) about topics mostly focused on the US and Europe.
To complement Wolf’s list, we have put together an Alternative Economics Summer Reading list with authors from across the world, with more varied backgrounds – and writing about more wide-ranging topics, and from a wider variety of critical perspectives. Our alternative list also reflects our belief that issues such as structural racism, imperialism, ideology and the philosophy of science are central to understanding economics.
It is not that we think that Martin Wolf is in particular responsible for the lack of diversity and monism in our reading decisions: other curators such as the Economist (for example, here) also perpetuate the myth that the books worth reading about economics are mostly those written about the US and Europe, by white men trained trained in mainstream economics. Read More »