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Emerging Voices: Leonard Wantchekon on a Global University in West Africa

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
March 5, 2013

Students of SIMAD University attend their graduation ceremony, along with over 600 other students, in Mogadishu on November 29, 2012 (Omar Faruk/Courtesy Reuters). Students of SIMAD University attend their graduation ceremony, along with over 600 other students, in Mogadishu on November 29, 2012 (Omar Faruk/Courtesy Reuters).


Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Leonard Wantchekon, founder of the African School of Economics and professor at Princeton. He discusses his efforts to build a world-class university to train African scholars and practitioners in Benin.

There is a genuine need for African economists, development specialists, policymakers, and highly skilled managers to assist in designing and implementing growth-promoting policies on the continent. Since 2002, only 7 percent of the 401 publications on Africa in the Journal of Development Economics have been co-authored by Africans. In addition, only 11 percent of the 258 impact evaluation studies completed on the continent since 2004 have included African co-authors. The lack of scholarship on Africa by Africans points to a larger issue−many Africans lack the means to attend a quality institution that offers social science graduate programs.

On the management side, there are about ninety institutions in Africa that offer a Masters in Business Administration and less than ten meet international standards, according to a 2012 report from the African Management Initiative. The report also cites an international media company representative who stated, “…we really want to hire locally, but the fact that we still can’t is really a mark of the fact that those people aren’t there.” This lack of highly trained managers together with the limited representation of African scholars in social science research on Africa has led to difficulties in the formulation of coherent public policies and proper market analysis for the private sector. The African School of Economics (ASE) aims to fill this need.

The ASE will also address Africa’s ongoing gender inequity. It is broadly documented that African women and girls are largely disenfranchised populations on the continent. As such, they have access to the fewest resources in their daily lives and often lack opportunities to attain levels of education available to male counterparts. The 2012 World Development Report (WDR) notes that “Women now represent 40 percent of the global labor force, 43 percent of the world’s agricultural labor force, and more that half of the world’s university students. Productivity will be raised if their skills and talents are used more fully.” It also reports that, “Women are more likely than men to work as unpaid family laborers or in the informal sector,” and “as a result women tend to earn less than men.”

The ASE aims to increase gender equality throughout Africa by offering women the opportunity to receive a graduate education. The knowledge and skills they will gain at ASE will help them influence public policy and foster economic growth in Africa.

The ASE will open in the fall of 2014 and will be based on a forty-five acre campus in the university town of Abomey Calavi, Benin, about twenty-five miles from Cotonou, the country’s largest city. It will offer a variety of full-time and part-time programs. In 2014 the ASE will offer a Masters in Business Administration and in Mathematics, Economics, and Statistics. In 2015 it will offer a Masters in International and Public Affairs and in Development Studies. In 2018 a PhD program in Economics and Management will open, and in 2024 students will be able to enroll in a Bachelors program. The programs bear strong similarities with those provided in top North American and European universities, but with two main distinctive features: (1) advanced training in quantitative and qualitative research methods, and (2) significant exposure to the humanities, including economic history of Africa.

ASE will host three major research centers: the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy (IERPE), the Institute for African Studies (IAS), and the Institute for Finance and Management (IFM). Each institute will provide students and faculty the opportunity to actively participate in research projects, mostly sponsored by government agencies, international organizations, and private corporations. The ASE will also host an analytical social history center, the Museum for Social Discovery.

Princeton University has provided a grant to cover ASE’s initial administrative costs as it prepares for the fall 2014 launch. Furthermore, the two institutions have signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will enable an exchange of faculty and students in both directions. In addition, the ASE has formalized partnerships with nine other universities across the globe and is in negotiations with an additional fifteen. Finally, the ASE has been developing ties with about thirty private and public universities across Africa in order to facilitate student recruitment and placement and to establish joint academic programs.

Tremendous progress has been made since the official launch of the project. The campus blueprint is almost complete, the academic programs are finalized, and the process of staff, student, and faculty recruitment is underway. There is much more work to be done. I believe that creating the ASE is an important step in the process of African development. This is because ideas that will help Africa develop have to come mostly from Africa and have to involve more Africans. This, of course, cannot happen overnight. So we need to set up great institutions of higher education with the hope that, over time, we develop enough talent to make a difference.

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