Patrick, you began your illustrious career in African economic history in the late 1960s. How has the field evolved over time?
I completed my PhD in 1969 and published my first book, on Dahomey 1640-1960, in 1982. The field was then small, interdisciplinary, and hopeful. Expansion continued into the 1980s, but problems on all sides prevented it from thriving. One high point was the grant for African economic history (I believe from Ford) won by Philip Curtin for 1973-74. About 10 participants – of North American, African (Nigeria, Tanzania), and European ancestry – were supported for field research in 1973 and a seminar in summer 1974. Numerous publications on a mix of precolonial and colonial-era topics came out of this work. By 1980, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch’s Laboratoire – Connaissance du Tiers-Monde was publishing on issues in African economic history. Work included neoclassical, political economy, and descriptive approaches.
In 1969 […] the field was […] small, interdisciplinary, and hopeful.
As is apparent from the list of works cited in my recent overview of the field, the frequency of publication in African economic history dropped substantially from 1985 to 2005. In that period, some important works appeared, but they were primarily by long-time participants in the literature (Abdul Sheriff, Sara Berry, Ralph Austen, and Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson). One of the few newcomers to the field was Paul Tiyambe Zeleza. Key scholars moved from initial achievements in African economic history to other fields of study. These included Phyllis Deane (to British economic history), Immanuel Wallerstein (to the modern world-system), Giovanni Arrighi (to the modern world system), A. G. Hopkins (to British empire), Philip Curtin (to global and medical history), and Paul T. Zeleza (to African diaspora studies). I, too, moved mostly from economics to African demography and to world history. One may say that African insights led scholars to explore similar issues on a wider scale; second, the scholarly discourse in African economic history was then isolated and thus not very rewarding.
In the 1980s, you urged economic historians to go forth and shine light on Africa’s past, but interest in African economic history continued to wane in the following decades. What do you think accounted for the field’s marked decline? And what do you think explains its rapid recent resurgence?
My 1987 review of African economic history literature focused on the 1981 Berg Report to the World Bank: I thought it argued, fallaciously, that history was irrelevant to contemporary development. I still think that this Washington Consensus was the most severe restriction on analysis of African economic history. Further, African universities suffered difficult times from the late 1970s, and African students abroad entered economics, but not economic history. Further, scholars with a descriptive approach gained control of the journal African Economic History, so that there was little contact with the broader field of economic history.
I still think that [the] Washington Consensus was the most severe restriction on analysis of African economic history.
A second source of academic decline was that African universities were not uncommonly in turmoil from the 1970s through the 1990s, though with varying stories for each country. One set of causes was student unrest, arising from student radicalism or demands for stipends and secure employment. Another set of causes was fiscal stringency, which cut university offerings, especially because of Structural Adjustment programs mandated by international organizations. Since 2000, universities have grown rapidly, though conflict continues.
From 2005, Gareth Austin has led a wave of new scholars, based initially in Europe and then more broadly. Especially through Austin and his ties to Patrick K. O’Brien, African economic history gained a place in the expanding study of global economic history; this led, in turn, to linking global and African economic history to North American, continental European, and Asian studies of economic history. Growing European interest in North-South academic connections facilitated the new work in African economic history. I must admit that I was skeptical of the 2012 World Economic History Congress (WEHC) in Stellenbosch, South Africa, fearful that it would still neglect the majority of the African continent. But the breadth and depth of economic historical discourse on Africa at the 2015 WEHC in Kyoto convinced me—a new day has come!
The activities of the African Economic History Network have become increasingly popular over the past five years. In your opinion what is the importance of such networks? Did similar initiatives exist in the 1980s?
I do agree that the African Economic History Network is a decisive advance for the field. I believe the impetus came from young scholars in Europe seeking a new view of global North-South relations, close collaboration with African scholars, officials, and students, and soon encompassing North American studies of Africa. In the 1980s there were personal relationships among scholars in these three regions, but communications were weaker, institutions were weaker. I have also found, for instance at the 2015 WEHC in Kyoto, a much warmer reception for African economic history from economic historians of other regions, and I believe this is greatly to the advantage of our field. The current expansion of higher education in Africa can only help.
I have […] found […] a much warmer reception for African economic history from economic historians of other regions.
You once noted a division between economists of Africa (who studied the period after 1960) and African historians (who studied the period before 1960). Have you since seen a greater dialogue between these groups and/or their research agendas?
I think the underlying problem was a willingness on both sides to believe that 1960 represented such a fundamental shift in African economic life that there was no point in trying to compare or link the two periods. Meanwhile, there was an opportunity from the 1960s to 1980s, taken up by some, to assemble statistical series linking precolonial, colonial, and independent Africa in an exercise parallel to the construction of retrospective national accounts for other regions. Scholars today should locate those academic assemblies of data and link them to current research to develop more complete documentation of past economic life in Africa: I think such work is beginning among scholars associated with AEHN.
This interview is making me rethink the question of the split between historians and economists. I think the crucial step was the series of conferences of the Global Economic History Network (2003-2006) based at the London School of Economics and funded by the Leverhulme Foundation. They were led by Patrick K. O’Brien and relied on Kaoru Sugihara, Gareth Austin, Jan Luiten van Zanden, and others for support. The GEHN initiative built on global economic historical insights from Dennis Flynn and Arturo Giráldez on silver (1995), Gunder Frank’s ReOrient (1998), Globalization and History by Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson, (1999), Pomeranz’s Great Divergence (2000), and Inikori’s Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England (2002). I was brought into contact with the LSE group and with Williamson, who had been my economic history advisor and from whom I had been separated for two decades. Meanwhile, the initiatives of Daron Acemoglu, further pursued in Africa by Nathan Nunn, added further links among historians and economists. Overall, the global developments in economic history brought African issues and research into the discussion, and the separation of historians and economists in analysis declined sharply.
The global developments in economic history brought African issues and research into the discussion, and the separation of historians and economists in analysis declined sharply.
I think that work in African economic history is now self-sustaining, especially because of the AEHN. We may see further stages in this evolution, in which economic historians of Africa not only catch up, but offer leadership in economic history. For instance, the development-era framework emphasizing GDP might not have been the best for long-term African analysis. Newer approaches, based on Net Domestic Income and with attention to transfers of income in and especially out of Africa, might be more appropriate as a basis for long-term statistics and comparisons of African economies.
You have long been a proponent of big database research in African economic history. The application of econometric techniques has been on the rise. Some argue that this allows for better causal inference, while others are concerned about the compression of history. What is your take on this?
From the 1960s to 1980s there were several efforts to develop data series and econometric analyses in African economic history. I participated in these efforts. Then they lapsed until the recent work of Acemoglu, Robinson, and Nunn began econometric studies of long-term economic inequality related to enslavement. My critique of these studies is that they offer correlation but not a mechanism or trajectory for conveying inequality from one generation to the next. But I am happy to see their attention to long-term economic patterns.
My critique of these studies is that they offer correlation but not a mechanism or trajectory for conveying inequality from one generation to the next.
I would like to see a range of long-term and short-term, large-scale and localized studies in African economic history, with attention especially to linking precolonial, colonial, and post-independence periods with data. My 1990 paper on Cameroonian exports and state revenue, 1890-1990, was intended to illustrate that point.
Some years ago, you made a mammoth effort to construct long-term African population estimates. What were some of the major challenges in this undertaking? What are some of the limitations of the database? How have you sought to bolster these estimates?
I am still at work on a synthetic analysis of African population and migration, 1650-1950: I’m working out the last inconsistencies of my simulation linking population size to migration of captives overseas and within Africa. I have found that, to be coherent, the analysis needs to be comprehensive, including all of Africa, a long time period, and many paths of captivity and mortality. The benefit of this approach is that we will have decennial estimates of population and migration (by age and sex) for some 70 regions over 300 years, so that we will be able compare African populations and per capita figures to other world regions. Still, the analysis involves important simplifications, in that it does not account for the fluctuations brought by drought, famine, or epidemic. I expect all of the data and the whole analytical apparatus to be available online for use and critique by others. I hope that my initial estimates will be followed by a second stage of analysis in which colleagues address additional issues in African population history.
In an April interview, Ewout Frankema told the Frontiers blog that African economic history can help tackle contemporary development issues by providing a long-term perspective. Would you agree? And what challenges arise in attempting to connect contemporary Africa with the early post-colonial, colonial, and even pre-colonial periods?
I definitely agree with Ewout’s argument, which strikes directly at the prejudices that long restricted study of African economic history. Reading colonial records, I not uncommonly came across instances where local African populations encountered periodic tours of overseas “experts” who showed up about once a generation and tried to impose “reforms” of local agriculture, repeating experiments that had already failed. The experts neglected either to ask about or to read about the previous and unsuccessful efforts. The result built community cynicism about the shallowness of experts.
There are two great resources for connecting contemporary Africa with its historic past. First is African communities, which still maintain ideas and information on earlier traditions and how things have changed. It is important to draw in depth (though critically) on their understandings of historical change. Second is the written record. Colonial and post-colonial archives, along with the more scattered precolonial writings, need to be scoured for data, and the data need to be assembled with care. The work is laborious, but it has the potential to reveal important, long-term patterns in African economic change—patterns that still exercise their influence. New digital techniques may make it possible to search African documents more effectively.
Within the next 40 years Africa’s population is estimated to double. In your view, how will this unprecedented population growth affect African welfare and migratory developments, both within Africa and beyond?
To me, the most striking point is that African population was held at a virtually stagnant level from 1700 to 1900, as almost all other regional populations grew. After slow growth to 1940, population growth rather suddenly shifted to a rate of roughly two percent per annum, a rate that persists. Population patterns before and after the 1940s were fundamentally different. So African population has already doubled a couple of times since 1940, and I doubt that the impact of the next doubling will be that much different than the effects of the previous ones. African growth rates will slow when it makes sense to African families to slow them. Over time, meanwhile, Africa is becoming far more urban.
African population has already doubled a couple of times since 1940, and I doubt that the impact of the next doubling will be that much different than the effects of the previous ones.
Finally, what advice can you offer to new entrants to the African economic history field? Are there particular understudied topics that you would advise PhD students to focus their attention on?
In general, I’d emphasize that new participants in the field go to the archives and to communities to learn about available data and current understandings of economic issues. Next, I would emphasize learning about different African regions and their links, rather than specializing too deeply in a locality. I expect that most work will be microeconomic, analyzing firms, consumption, production, exchange, and commodities. But I also encourage emphasis on macroeconomic analysis. Historical estimates should be developed for GDP or, better yet, for Net Domestic Income with attention to transfers in and out of domestic economies to permit comparison of African and other world economies. In between these levels, I’d like to see studies of money in Africa, especially imaginative studies that take account of the variety of African currencies: this will address the costs to Africans of having had to shift currencies repeatedly. Other key issues are changes in land ownership, in gender relations, and in control of labor. Critical and comparative study of government policy—precolonial, colonial, and post-independence—is essential, along with study of the impact of international organizations on African economies. On the balance of agriculture and industry in Africa’s future, I encourage economic historians to consider the arguments of Tetteh Kofi and Asayegn Desta, A Saga of African Underdevelopment (2008). Finally, I think we need more study of the place of Africa and Africans in the world economy, past and present.
I would emphasize learning about different African regions and their links, rather than specializing too deeply in a locality.
For Patrick’s recent overview of the field, see Patrick Manning, “African encounters with global narratives,” in Pat Hudson and Francesco Boldizzoni (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Global Economic History (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 409-428.
The Frontiers editorial team consists of Michiel de Haas, Kate Frederick (both Wageningen University) and Felix Meier zu Selhausen (University of Southern Denmark & University of Sussex). AEHN board members Ewout Frankema (Wageningen University) and Morten Jerven (Norwegian University of Life Sciences) form the supervisory board.
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