‘Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong’

Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong

By Morten Jerven Zed Books, 160 pages, $21.95

Economists who study Africa use dodgy theory and inappropriate statistical techniques, and at times deliberately mislead. In an interesting and highly readable book, Morten Jerven, himself an economist of Africa at Simon Fraser University in Canada, pulls no punches. He offers a devastating critique of the economics profession and asks provocative questions. But he overstates his case and offers few practical solutions.

For decades, people have tried to explain why Africa has stubbornly remained poor. Explanations range from the legacy of colonialism and dependency on natural resources to “some inherent character flaw.” To prove their point, economists rely heavily on crunching data from dozens of countries.

Jerven says this approach places too much trust in African data, much of which is horribly unreliable. In 2014, for example, GDP growth in South Sudan was either 5 percent or 36 percent, depending on whether you believe the IMF or the World Bank.

But by the end of the book, the reader is at a loss. Jerven’s call for economists to “abandon” complex statistical analysis of Africa and instead focus on “deep contextual studies of history and institutions,” sounds appealing but is frustratingly vague. Yet as an introduction to African economics — particularly for non-specialists — his book is certainly worth reading.