Reflecting back, looking forwards: Morten Jerven

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1. Tell us a bit about yourself, and your area of interest.

I am an economic historian, and my work has focused on economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, both in the very long run and in the independence period. Most recently I have done a lot of work on the histories of material progress and how this is measured in economic statistics. This work has been published in Poor Numbers, and Economic Growth and Measurement Reconsidered in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia, 1965-1995 forthcoming in 2014 with Oxford University Press.

2. Looking back at 2013, what do you think were the most promising developments in your field? Do you think they will be sustainable into the next year and beyond?

Economic history of Africa is experiencing a strong resurgence. Together with Erik Green and others we have started the African Economic History Network, and we are registering a lot of new young promising scholars joining the network. This follows the not so recent but very welcome discovery by mainstream economics that ‘History Matters’ for understand current poverty, signified perhaps by the popularity of of Acemoglu and Robinson’s  book Why Nations Fail.

The issue of development statistics has been neglected. This changed in 2013. With the publication of Poor Numbers the issue of how we measure economic growth went into the mainstream with interest from Bill Gates, and editorials in the Financial Times, all chiming in on how economic progress is measured in Africa, and whether Africa is rising or not.

Finally, data for development got a further push, with the expert UN panel calling for a Data Revolution.

3. What do you think were the most worrying developments in your field? Do you think that they have been, or will be, successfully tackled?

The call for a data revolution may have a positive impact, but I am concerned that the demand for data will overshoot the supply of data, and therefore that the data sheets that are supposed to revolutionize development end up being full of gaps and filled with useless information.

It is very encouraging that more economists are doing serious historical work on the economic progress of African economies. The only worry is that, when approaching the history of Africa, there will be a bias towards quantitative evidence, and therefore that important episodes are neglected, and history is compressed. I write about this challenge in A Clash of Disciplines? Economists and Historians Approaching the African Past.

Finally, when it comes to getting objective data on economic growth there have been some skirmishes in 2013. I hope that as the dust settles there is a good chance that leaders and statisticians in African states may be able to sit down and decide to invest in data for development. If you control the data you control the policy, and that’s why the African statistical community need to embrace openness in debates, and not shut it down, because that will be self-defeating.

4. What new trends/events/challenges do you think that people should be looking out for in 2014?

The discussion of material progress in Africa will continue.

I think that one of the main questions will be the rise of income inequality (or the rise of the middle class?). We have too little information on this issue, but we know that it will matter for political change and stability. I expect more challenges to political status quo as growth continues, while conditions for unemployed urban youth and young adults remain unchanged.

A second emerging topic is the relationship between governance and growth. There have already been papers in the past two years at conferences that are looking for links between democratization and economic growth. There was a whole little cottage industry of regression papers in the 1990s that tried to find the variable that caused slow growth in Africa. I expect an equally unfulfilling onset of papers that are seeking to find the causes of rapid growth from 1995 to 2015.

5. If you had the chance to put one issue on the region’s agenda in 2014, what would it be and why?

Throughout 2014, I will be pushing for better data on economic governance in Africa. The area has been neglected, and currently governments and central banks do not have the necessary information to run any informed economic policy on structural change, employment or income distribution, because they have absolutely no current data.

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