African history through a multidisciplinary lens

Insights into Africa’s past gleaned over a groundbreaking lecture series – plus some surprising predictions for the continent’s future


“We expected around 200 participants. We got 27,000.” Elias Papaioannou, Professor of Economics at London Business School, is clearly still awestruck as he reflects on the extraordinary response to the online lecture series ‘African History through the Lens of Economics’, which he conceived, curated and delivered.

Professor Papaioannou conceived the lectures wearing his other hat – Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development – during the Covid-19 pandemic “after seeing many esteemed colleagues, mostly in prestigious American schools, open their PhD courses to doctoral students across the world.”

His longstanding interest in Africa led to him securing a very competitive grant from the European Research Council into the continuing economic impact of European colonisation on the continent and, although he had not yet published any papers as a result of the research, the data his team had collated, in collaboration with around 50 people from very different academic backgrounds, prompted questions on how best to interrogate it – but not in a purely econometric way.


He recalls: “At some point, when I realised that the pandemic would have a third or the fourth wave, in September 2021, I thought we should put together a course that, rather than target PhD students in economics specialising in econometrics and mathematical theory, would be accessible to researchers who have been working on the same questions, but from a different line of enquiry. I thought, ‘Let’s forget the geeky stuff and try to reach out to the wider community in the social sciences.’”

“We didn’t want it to be a bunch of academics telling people what the impact of the legacy of colonialism was in Africa today. We wanted engagement, dialogue, and interactions.”

Wide-ranging examination

Expanding beyond a single-focus approach – in his case, applied economics – to embrace other disciplines led to an opening-out of the lecture series to include political scientists, historians and proponents of other schools of thought, who came together to produce a wide-ranging examination of the impact of European colonisation on African countries – and some equally thought-provoking insights.

Besides the incredible interest in the lecture series, which was a free-to-access online course, it was notable in attracting the support of three fellow distinguished Africa experts, who all gave their time free. Professor Papaioannou recalls, “I reached out to my dear friend and collaborator Stelios Michalopoulos, who is a Professor of Economics at Brown University; Nathan Nunn, Professor of Economics at Harvard and one of the most pre-eminent economists of my generation; and Leonard Wantchekon, a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and founder of the African School of Economics in Benin, who has an amazing life story, from escaping imprisonment in Benin to becoming a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.”

The idea was to bring diverse strands of research together. “First, we planned the topics we would cover. Nathan, for example, would discuss his pioneering research into the long-run effect of the Slave Trades; Stelios and I would cover our research on the legacy of ethnic political centralisation and partitioning during the Scramble for Africa; and Leonard would discuss his work on the Cold War, decolonisation and African socialism.

“Then we thought, why don’t we invite some other lecturers, from a younger generation and from African countries, to present their different perspectives and get insights from all social sciences? The 10 lectures effectively became 20; we also added three plenary talks and more special sessions. So, we covered each major topic of African history from various angles. On the Slave Trades, for example, Nathan gave the economics viewpoint. Pat [Patrick Manning], a very distinguished scholar from the University of Pittsburgh, discussed the population and demographic impact, building on his important early work, and Ugo [G. Ugo Nowokeji], a Professor of African studies at Berkeley, gave the political-science viewpoint, zooming in on West Africa.

“This allowed us to have different perspectives. We also invited younger contributors. We didn’t want it to be a bunch of academics telling people what the impact of the legacy of colonialism was in Africa today. We wanted engagement, dialogue, and interactions. We wanted to show it wasn’t just the middle-aged people like us doing this, but to illustrate the engagement of the younger generation of scholars, many from Africa. So, we invited many people across the globe, including many people who come from Africa but work abroad, and many who actually work in Africa.”

Significant innovations

When the level of interest in the series became apparent, with the “extraordinarily generous” support of the Wheeler Institute, the organisers put together a team of teaching fellows, PhD students at LBS and Brown, and young academics from African countries to present review sessions after the lectures – “and were stunned that some of them had 600 students”. Clearly, Professor Papaioannou adds, “those taking the course wanted to engage and participate, and we showed that this is doable, even for such a large audience.”

Another innovation, “which turned out to be a very good one”, was to invite about 20 young Africans, PhD students, current LBS students and alumni, and young professionals to moderate each session, which enabled them to provide insights and provoke questions that may not have occurred to the lecturers themselves and which injected a highly interactive element into proceedings.

The teaching team ran a long, 40-question survey asking respondents about their prior knowledge, feelings and views on contentious issues of African history: colonisation, partitioning, the Cold War, and the role of corruption and misgovernance. About 3,000 answered, giving the team a unique source of information to connect academic thinking with people’s views. And, despite the large number of attendees, the team devoted at least a third of each lecture to discussion, going over dozens of questions. The team also staged weekly Q&As after the lectures, providing written answers to the questions most asked during the lectures.

The organisers were struck by the breadth and depth of the audience, Professor Papaioannou says. “Besides the huge interest, most importantly, the participants were from 160 or so countries, the majority from Africa, with fresh insights and cool ideas for future research. Clearly, in the years to come, we need more research coming from the ground. Leonard Wantchekon is very passionate about bringing young Africans to do PhDs and MBAs at top UK and US schools, and we hope this open access course will be a significant step in this endeavour. I am keen to see inter-disciplinary research with all sorts of tools on African political economy, while Nathan and Stelios are strong advocates of the need to blend economics with culture and Africa, with its vast diversity, can offer unique insights.”

“Survey data shows that Africans believe that hard work is the way to get ahead, and that these convictions can influence behaviour”

Polarised views

As the teaching team stressed, views about Africa have been polarised. Many economists are optimistic, citing investment opportunities in infrastructure, manufacturing and technology, allied to a young population that, in many African counties, is increasingly more educated. But others are less optimistic and continue to harbour concerns about misgovernance, conflict, weak state capacity, corruption and poor infrastructure. Pessimists cite the atrocities and exploitation that Africa endured during colonisation, the preceding epoch of slave trades, and post-independence during the Cold War.

As the lectures showed, Africa is not a homogenous entity but an extraordinarily varied continent, with considerable linguistic diversity across and within countries, and a plethora of cultures. The research of the past 10 to 20 years has begun to unpack this diversity, moving from cross-country comparisons to looking across regions and groups in the same country.

Professor Papaioannou’s aim was to portray these differences, understand its origins, and shed light on their implications in what he calls a “meso” approach. “As we heard in the , Africa is the most multilingual region of the world – roughly 75% of people speak more than one language, compared to around 25% of people in the United States.” (Studies have shown that there are several benefits to being multilingual. These include being better at processing the stimuli we are exposed to in our daily lives; being able to assess situations from a more utilitarian, as opposed to individualistic, perspective; and being better at interpreting a speaker’s intended meaning – qualities that may all be useful in education, trade, business and entrepreneurship.

His work with long-time collaborator Stelios Michalopoulos on large differences in social mobility in Africa, as reflected in intergenerational mobility in education, is another example of the diversity found everywhere. “Looking at the differences across and within regions in the same countries, we see huge variation in intergenerational mobility. There are pockets of very high mobility – from rags to riches – and poverty traps within the same country and region.”

If nepotism and corruption are the ‘enablers’ of economic success, as opposed to merit, one would expect low levels of social mobility. However, individuals’ self-reported social mobility (that is, how their perceived economic situation compares with that of their parents) appears relatively high in many African countries.

Although such subjective assessments may not reflect reality very accurately, survey data shows that Africans believe that hard work is the way to get ahead, and that these convictions can influence behaviour. This suggests that many African regions are characterised by a culture of meritocracy, which implies increased social mobility. However, targeted interventions may be needed to address the large spatial inequities that often transcend religion and ethnicity.

Grounds for optimism

To end on an optimistic note, in his presentation, James Robinson (Professor of Global Conflict Studies and Director of The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy), drew on his research with Soeren J. Henn into Africa’s latent assets.

Robinson and Henn believe that Africa can draw from the parallels between the economic histories of China and Africa, arguing that, “Africa has similarly suffered from many of the same adverse shocks and syndromes [and that] like China, Africa has deep latent assets”, which, if harnessed effectively, “can not only evoke a new way of thinking about the future of economic development in the continent, but turn Africa’s economic potential into economic success.”

While two of these “latent” assets differ from China’s, they are similar in that they pertain to social characteristics, culture and mindset, rather than physical attributes.

The three most salient ones are:

1. Meritocracy – “Like China, the majority of African societies are built on achieved, not ascribed status: Indeed, data shows that Africans’ perceptions and anticipations of social mobility are the highest in the world;
2. Cosmopolitanism – “Because of the heterogeneous and small-scale nature of African society, Africans endlessly deal with differences: Different languages, different cultures, and different histories … This experience makes Africans the most able culturally to cope with our modern globalized world”; and
3. Scepticism towards authority – “Historically, this tendency kept the size of African polities small. Today, it can form the basis for effective inclusive states that work in the national interest because people are skeptical and thus attuned to the abuse of power. The difficult political terrain that the colonial powers bequeathed the region has prevented the formation of such states. But the latent skepticism holds significant promise: Africa will not fall foul of the types of charismatic populists that one sees in Latin America.”

Whether and how soon this optimistic scenario unfolds for the many diverse nations of Africa remains to be seen; for Professor Papaioannou and his three faculty colleagues, “The lecture series was a very humbling experience. From a personal point of view, it was the best teaching experience any of us had ever had and we hope that, by using this multidisciplinary approach, we can move forward working together.”

The course materials and session recordings from the LBS lecture series ‘African History through the lens of Economics’ are available free of charge here.

Comments (0)