/ 15 February 2019

Just what is ‘economics for Africa’?

"Rethinking economics for Africa is an imperative
"Rethinking economics for Africa is an imperative, but the duty is to invest in understanding what that means." (John McCann/M&G)


In Rethinking economics for Africa is a duty, Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt correctly characterises a number of imperatives for decolonising the curriculum and some of the outcomes that we should seek to achieve. First, we need to question the correctness and relevance for our local context of the economics curriculum that is taught. Second, the way in which economics is taught needs to better prepare students to tackle economic questions in the “real world” after they leave university.

This is not new ground, but it is good to see renewed engagement by students. When I was a lecturer at the University of Cape Town (UCT), a number of junior academics, including myself, raised the concern that the undergraduate curriculum was too oriented towards preparing students for postgraduate study. In fact, the vast majority of students would never study beyond undergraduate, meaning that they learned dangerously simplistic “laws” that would only be presented in more nuanced ways at the postgraduate level (if at all). Much damage is done by making undergraduate economists believe that the world functions according to “Econ 101”. The curriculum reform proposal was, somewhat to our surprise, shot down — not so much out of resistance to content, but seemingly for more mundane reasons: it would require additional effort and create inconvenience.

As I argued in an academic paper in 2017, What Does an (South) African Economics Look Like?, it is critical to understand the existing state of South African economics when embarking on any proposed reform. I will return to the issue of institutional dynamics, but let me summarise some of the key points from the paper in relation to issues that those advocating “rethinking economics” usually raise.

First, I argue that decolonisation does not mean throwing away the entire mainstream (“neoclassical”) economics curriculum. Those who want to do this, often styling themselves as “heterodox” economists, usually have little training in the mainstream and therefore are unqualified to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, by doing so we would confine our students to intellectual isolation if we failed to teach them the intellectual foundations used by other economists, in public, private and university sectors, in the rest of the world.

It is also critical to appreciate that decolonisation does not mean replacing the mainstream curriculum with a heterodox one. For example, some think we should rather teach a Marxist economics curriculum. Is Marxism adequately reflective of the local context? I would say not. Its main tenets were developed more than a century ago and it often shares with neoclassical economics the problematic claim of providing universal “laws”. Other heterodox literatures are often incomplete, subject to insufficient scrutiny or centred-around individual thinkers or intellectual cliques.

The problem with the limited knowledge of some promoters of reform is that they misunderstand and misrepresent the problems with neoclassical economics. For example, many are surprised to find out that influential criticisms of the conventional wisdom (created by earlier economists) on the minimum wage came from economists working in the mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s one reason why a national minimum wage had already been introduced in the United States, despite it being the centre of neoclassical economics and having a more politically conservative polity.

Similarly, “neoclassical” empirical techniques have been used to demonstrate racial discrimination in the labour market, the political bias of ratings agencies and even how there may have been insider trading on stock markets prior to US-backed coups. Ignorance of such developments also reflects the rather embarrassing reality that South African curriculums and academic work are often a decade or two behind the international mainstream. As I argue in the paper, “South African [economics] departments aspire to the standards of the neoclassical mainstream, but there remains a large gulf between reality and aspiration”. The consequences of this also afflict even well-intentioned “radicals”.

What is the right approach? For some years I have been arguing that pluralism, not a heterodox curriculum, is the correct one: students should be exposed to multiple different schools of thought in parallel to an updated mainstream neoclassical curriculum. When I returned to UCT in 2010 I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it had reintroduced a history of economic thought (HET) course, which had not been available when I was an undergraduate. These courses, along with economic history courses, are perhaps the best starting point for such endeavours. But unlike UCT, where the HET course was a third-year elective, they should be compulsory for all undergraduate students — to combat the dangers of “Econ 101” thinking.

Genuine pluralism does not mean just adding heterodox literature, but should get students to think critically about the mainstream neoclassical curriculum. That means retaining neoclassical economics and understanding it better. It is for this reason that I suggest that those who argue decolonisation will reduce standards clearly have no clue what it involves: a decolonised curriculum will be much more demanding than the current one.

That raises the next question: Do we have the calibre of academics and students to do this? Because the institutional and intellectual mediocrity we inherited from apartheid has been inadequately addressed, my view is rather pessimistic. I can think of fewer than five South African economists in the past half-century who have made material contributions to the mainstream or influential heterodox literatures. It’s debatable whether any have made material, critical contributions relating to mainstream economics on its own terms. But simply continuing to teach a flawed curriculum is also not an option, so we have to try.

So what of the dynamics of the South African academy, particularly in economics? It should not be surprising that significant ideological resistance to the decolonisation of the curriculum remains: most academics (local and foreign) have been trained in the same problematic way that decolonisation seeks to address. Although many may not have reflected critically on the situation themselves, it is unlikely that, since #RhodesMustFall, they will obstruct progress to a great degree. Indeed, one even sees individuals who only recently were advocating that the International Monetary Fund should take over South Africa’s fiscal policy decisions now jumping on the bandwagon of the “rethinking economics” brigade.

The most important contribution of the student protests may be that it has opened up the space such initiatives need to succeed.

The specific dynamics will vary across departments and universities, but the two main dangers are, first, that existing “conservative” academics — for reasons of ideology, limited intellectual capacity or indifference — will block efforts at curriculum reform and, second, that existing “heterodox” academics will advance a form of supposed decolonisation that is really just the imposition of a differently narrow view of economics. There is also a third, more subtle, danger: that conservative academics will appropriate curriculum reform in a way that subverts its purpose. For example, a lecturer might teach the strand of American economics literature which argues that slavery wasn’t really such a bad thing. Institutional bureaucrats would “tick the decolonisation box” on having slavery as a topic in the curriculum, but what actually gets taught might be very different to what non-participants might think.

For these and other reasons, I suggest that we need to be cautious of those who position themselves as leaders of curriculum reform and look carefully at who controls such initiatives and the funding behind them. To succeed in the interests of current and future generations of students, we need to avoid the capture of the process by any ideological, intellectual or professional cabal.

Rethinking economics for Africa is an imperative, but the duty is to invest in understanding what that means and to ensure that the process is a collective effort not captured by narrow interests.

Seán Mfundza Muller is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Johannesburg. He also works with civil society organisations to enhance legislature oversight of public finances