Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong (and why Morten Jerven Gets It Right)

By Rachel Brock, Special Contributor for Human Rights and Development Issues

(Morten Jerven is scheduled to speak at the University of Pennsylvania's Lauder Center on April 11, 2017.)

Is Africa growing? Despite the robustness of this international development field, there is surprisingly little consensus over African economic growth.  Morten Jerven, the economist historian and Professor of Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, challenges dominant growth literature in his latest book: Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong (2015). Jerven makes over 70 years of postcolonial African economic development replete with complicated growth assessment systems, conflicting theories of development, and debates that continue to this day accessible to a non-economist audience. Instead of looking for reasons why growth has failed in Africa, he explains how recognizing the recurrent growth cycles that Africa has experienced may help generate better self-sustained growth strategies. Instead of focusing on why Africa has grown slowly, he argues, we need to focus on how African economies have grown.

In what Jerven calls the subtraction approach, scholars often compare the characteristics of a developed country to the characteristics of an underdeveloped country. The differences between the two are used to explain slow growth. In this way, the lack of growth is explained by something else. Underdevelopment thus explains underdevelopment, and slow recent economic growth becomes confused with the long-term condition of underdevelopment (Morten 31-32).

His work marks an important departure from mainstream economic discourse. Jerven argues for a more nuanced approach towards growth measurement, an approach that includes variant (varying?) moments of growth since the 1950s and does not unquestioningly blame slow growth on poor governance and inadequate institutions.

Allow me to present the following metaphor: The use of one trend—chronic growth failure—to describe postcolonial African growth is like drawing a linear line of best fit through a circular function. While the line will inadvertently intersect the function twice, this line in no way properly describes the relationships between data points. Combine this with the one-size-fits-all insistence that bad institutions and bad governance account for slow growth. We are left with a determination for why growth in Africa has failed that may appear aesthetically salient, but exercises no real explanatory power or guidance for future strategies.

In short, we need a paradigm shift in the way in which we conceptualize development. On the one hand, relying exclusively on quantitative summaries will inherently oversimplify complex real-world situations. On the other hand, quantitative analysis critically compresses enormous amounts of qualitative observation into understandable and accessible units. Imposing pre-prescribed quantitative methods to create blanket statements about growth may create generate snappy catch phrases: Africa has been represented as the “Hopeless Continent” and as the “Bottom Billion” in the last fifteen years.

Yet these assessments paint an inaccurate image of African growth trends and threaten to misguide future growth strategies. Moving towards self-sustained growth will require development experts and policymakers to honestly reflect on their theories of growth, and ensure that these visions do not presume failed growth. Africa merely requires this kind of conceptual openness to capitalize on its latent potential.

Africa does not suffer from chronic growth failure. Nor does the continent’s recent slow growth dictate future development patterns. We need to change the narrative from a story about the ‘African growth tragedy’, to an account of ‘Africa Rising’.

Rachel Brock is a junior at UPenn studying International Relations and French. She is the Deputy Online Editor for the SIR Journal.