Alex de Waal

A Social Science in Africa Fit for Purpose

WPF _20111207_i7Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, prepared a keynote address for the 2015-2016 cohort of Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellows during the fellowship workshop held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in partnership with the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University. Below is a transcribed version of his talk, which outlines systematic problems with framings of African political and economic issues as well as opportunities for African scholarship to address weaknesses that emerge out of western scholarship and biases.



In this presentation I will argue that African scholarship on Africa is operating at only a fraction of its true potential, and that it is hampered by the preferences, policies and politics of the western academy.

I will make three major points. First, the state of knowledge about African economics and politics is poor because in the higher reaches of the western academies, the focus is not on generating accurate information, but on inferring causal associations at a high level of abstraction, from datasets. And that those datasets are in fact far too weak for any such conclusions to be drawn.

Second, the structure of academic rewards and careers systematically disadvantages those who either do not have the skills or capacities for this kind of high-end quantitative endeavor (although it is profoundly flawed), or have serious misgivings about it. One result of this is a severe dissonance between actual lived experience, and academic work validated by the academy.

Third is what I call ‘Occidentalism’ in theory and policy. Occidentalism is the variant of Orientalism, it is the tendency to ascribe a cogency to the intellectual and cultural products of the west, that it does not in fact possess. Despite sustained critique by historians and anthropologists, the western experience of state formation remains the standard against which the rest of the world is indexed.

African Data

There’s a long-standing joke that 87.7% of Sudanese statistics are made up on the spot. This is not a laughing matter. Too much social scientific ‘fact’ about Africa is actually fiction because it is not based on real data.

We are all familiar with the way in which a foreign researcher relates to his or her research assistant. It can be mutually respectful, or it can be exploitative. Fundamentally it is unequal. It corresponds to the designation of knowledge as either ‘expert’ or ‘local knowledge’. Let me give three examples of how this is reflected at a macro level to the detriment of both scholarship and policy.

First, macroeconomics. I highly recommend a recent book by Morten Jerven: Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong. His starting point is that the economic data used for the study of African econometrics are highly unreliable. Econometricians have tried to compensate for this deficiency by using sophisticated statistical techniques. This cannot legitimately be done. Much of African econometrics is simply a vast exercise in garbage in, garbage out.

For example, economists have spent much time and effort trying to explain the supposed African chronic growth deficit. They take governance data from the late 1990s or early 2000s and use it to try to explain why Africa grew more slowly than the global average over the last fifty years. But, as Morten points out, cause should come first and, effect later. Because of lack of data—and lack of awareness of the deficits of the data—econometricians have made a simple error. They are trying to explain something that didn’t actually happen. Africa’s chronic growth deficit didn’t happen. What happened—as everyone who lived in the continent knows—was that African economies grew in the 1960s and early 70s, stalled in the 1980s and early 1990s, then grew again, albeit in a different fashion. Africa’s story isn’t one of chronic slow growth, but of boom, bust and boom again. There was a time-specific economic crisis—deeper and more protracted in Africa than elsewhere in the world—and that is what needs to be explained. The dominant feature of African economies is their extremely high sensitivity to global economic conditions.

That conclusion would lead to radically different economic policy prescriptions at the World Bank and other international financial institutions and donors.

My second example concerns wars. Everyone knows that there are no inter-state conflicts in Africa, only internal wars. Look at the databases of the Correlates of War and UCDP/PRIO databases: they have zeroes for the number of inter-state wars in Africa for most years. So there is an academic industry explaining civil wars, and why state formation has not needed to worry about borders. So the policy requirement is internal governance not inter-state relations.

But hold on a moment. Anyone who follows politics and conflict knows this is false. Countries regularly invade one another, or have border conflicts, or sponsor proxies to fight against their neighbors. In the Horn of Africa alone I have enumerated 35 of these conflicts over the last 55 years. If we expand the dataset to include conflicts across borders among their immediate neighbors too the number goes up to 92. Once again, political science is trying to explain something that didn’t happen.

A third example is from politics, namely governance indicators and failed/fragile states index. Did anyone notice how Mali still performed on the Failed States Index even while it fell apart during 2011-12? We all know the story of that period: Mali faced a near-perfect storm of corruption and institutional collapse at the center that left the state eviscerated and penetrated by international drug trafficking cartels, with parts of its territory surrendered—with state complicity—to criminal gangs and Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, which avowed extremist and separatist agendas. A military coup by a junior officer and the near total evaporation of state authority followed, leading to first a rescue plan by neighboring African countries, quickly overtaken by a French military intervention, which despite some battlefield successes, became bogged down in an intractable conflict.

There are datasets and indices specially designed to predict such crises. Specialists on Mali certainly predicted the crisis, in some detail. But if we turn to the most prominent of these measures, the Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace index of failed states, and turn to the data published in 2012—the year the crisis struck, based on the values of the indicators as they stood in 2011, we note something quite striking. The index ranks countries in reverse order: head of the list at number one is Somalia, and 191st out of 191 is Finland. In 2012, Mali stood at number 78, more or less the same as India and China.

In the 2013 index, Mali came crashing up this list, reaching 39. But still it barely reaches into the quintile of the most at-risk states, assessed as far more stable than, for example, Ethiopia (ranked at 19). We may have concerns about Ethiopia’s human rights record, but few would dispute that it should rank as a far more effective and stable state than Mali.

Where is the ‘real politics’ of political management in all this? African scholars first destination is history or political ethnography: documenting what actually happens. This is vital but grossly undervalued. It is done principally by country experts working for think-tanks like the International Crisis Group and the Carnegie Endowment. For sure, these institutions do some superb analysis, and their senior staff can move into academic positions. But it is extraordinarily hard to build a career based on knowing what is really happening a country, especially if it happens to be your own country.

What Knowledge is Valued

The structure of academic careers is in need of serious attention and reform. We are all familiar with the biases in academic reward and promotion, that undervalues teaching, and that rewards peer reviewed publication, biased towards high-ranking journals that prefer certain methodologies and questions. Those methods are typically quantitative, building beautiful castles in the air, or palaces on foundations of sand.

This career structure marginalizes the African scholar. Supervisors in foreign universities rarely have the subject matter expertise and so tend to guide students towards more theoretical approaches. Examiners and peer reviewers likewise reward and reinforce their own disciplinary biases.

On the other hand, it is common to see junior western scholars doing rather uninteresting quantitative studies, or superficial case studies, which they nonetheless are able to publish. This means that they thereby becoming the peer group that undertakes peer review. A lot of substandard material comes out, particularly on fashionable subjects.

The African scholar of political science may be compelled to adopt a schizoid personality. In order to become an academic in a western university, she or he may be obliged to unlearn important knowledge, and learn frameworks and skills that are actually irrelevant to the situation at hand, but necessary for being considered a professional academic.

Occidentalism in Theory and Practice

"Occidentalism" is an inverse variant of Orientalism, which was western scholars’ exoticization of eastern (and by extension) African societies. It is the tendency to ascribe a cogency to the intellectual and cultural products of the west, that it does not in fact possess. Occidentalism persists in scholarship and in policy.

One prime example of Occidentalism is the concept of ‘the state’. Despite the best attempts of historians and anthropologists to problematize this concept, it nonetheless carries with it a strong teleology: a one-way process of state formation and state-building. It is a process of turning robber barons to barons to constitutional government, moving from a traditional patronage-based political order toward a Weberian state, which means essentially an imitation of a north-west European state, or France, or the U.S.—all countries that established their modern statehood at the zenith of imperialism.

The rise of Asia will challenge this for sure. We will see a diversity of destinations for the consolidation of governance, sharing only the common factor of international recognition. This diversity reflects the fact that the vernacular in most countries doesn’t contain a word for ‘state’—but rather for power, authority, government, the regime of the day, etc. It is the same in Africa: political vernaculars have words for many things, but if we are to talk about ‘states’ it must be in English or French, in the domain of scholarship or the practice of international law and international relations.

Occidentalism also occurs in policy engagement. We shape our analysis to suit our audience, and end up speaking their language. Rather than evidence-based policy, we have policy-based evidence-making. The paradigm of this is engaging with western governments, the World Bank or the United Nations. Much of the policy-related discourse on good governance, post-conflict reconstruction, development, etc., takes place in a fantasy land that exists only in the minds of international civil servants.

It is very welcome that we are here in Addis Ababa. The African Union has in important respects deviated from the standard international practices. But we need to guard against treating the African Union as just a regional institution under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter. The AU’s legitimacy derives from the extent to which it reflects the aspirations of the African people, not its juridical and financial relationship with international bodies outside Africa.

The Need for an African Academy

Everything I have said does not lessen the need for rigor. To the contrary, it is more difficult to produce first rate scholarship by being true to the realities of this continent, than it is to slot into the established track.

Generating accurate data about African economies, African conflicts, and African political systems is hard. It is harder than pretending that the datasets that actually exist are good enough. It requires doing fieldwork, gathering information in a thorough and painstaking way.

Writing and publishing good quality, fact-heavy accounts of African realities is also not easy. Detailed accounts of what is actually happening don’t fit neatly into 5,000-8,000 word journal articles, and the market for books is very small, so that there is not much chance of publishing the kinds of local histories or detailed political memoirs that are commonplace in Europe.

Constructing frameworks for explaining how societies actually function, is intellectually demanding. It involves challenging the dominant frameworks and replacing them with better ones.

I am confident that these things will happen, and as they do, that scholars in this continent will feel less divided between their real selves and their scholarly selves.