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Decolonising economics: more context is needed, not less content

There is a new call to arms at South African universities: it’s time to decolonise the economics curriculum. This is part of a broader project to make curricula across disciplines more applicable to the South African context. Ihsaan Bassier, an Honours student at the University of Cape Town, writes that the institution’s curriculum is “largely abstracted from South Africa’s economic crisis and reinforces an anti-poor understanding of policies”. He explains:

Economics is presented as an amoral subject, only examining mechanistic questions and optimising efficiency. If it is amoral, why is so little attention given to heterodox thought? Capitalism arbitrarily privileges those with money over others in the most violent form possible, through a system of class protection, marginalisation of the poor and gross injustice.

From the outset, let me say that I agree South Africa’s economics curriculum needs to be refined. The tricky question is how. Simply removing content is not the answer: a more nuanced approach is needed.

Capitalism is not anti-poor

Economics equips students with a set of tools that allow them to explain the world around them. One of those tools is statistical analysis, which means we can test a hypothesis – such as Bassier’s above statement – with evidence from the real world.

And the real world evidence, unfortunately for Bassier, is loud and clear: capitalism, a system based on the principle of individual rights, has created remarkable economic freedom for humanity over the last three centuries. Consider this: in 1981 more than half the people in the world lived in absolute poverty. Today, that figure is less than 20%. Millions of Indians, Chinese - and Africans, too - have better living standards than their parents did.

That is not to say that everything about capitalism is great. Capitalism is not a single thing. It morphs into different forms depending on the political and social context. Capitalism in America is certainly more unfettered than capitalism in, say, France. And there is certainly space for more debate about the type of capitalism that’s needed in South Africa.

But those debates need to be based on sound theories and falsifiable evidence. Economic policy arguments – Is a higher minimum wage better for the poorest? Do social benefits lead to unemployment? Does regulation impede growth? – are all empirical questions, one that economists’ statistical toolkits can answer. Everyone has theories about how the world works. But as Dani Rodrik explains in his excellent book Economics Rules, there is not one single, better theory. Instead, there’s a menu of theories that economists can use to understand their work and the societies in which they operate.

Think of a theory as a map. There is no single map that explains everything. Sometimes you need a world map to look at countries. Sometimes you need a street map to find that new restaurant. Economists’ theories or models are the same. Different models are used in different contexts, and what makes a really good economist is picking the right model for the right question.

History provides context

Here is where Bassier is right: there must be more context in South Africa’s economics curricula. You do not decolonise a curriculum by removing content. If you do that, students are denied the opportunity to participate in local policy debates and the global job market. Universities can decolonise by adding more context and diversity.

My solution? More economic history and more economic thought. Global and African economic history provides us with an understanding of the historical roots of growth, poverty, development and inequality. The history of economic thought is concerned with theorists’ ideas about solving the economic problem, including philosophers that were very much in favour of socialism. If the neoclassical model is a map of one country, the history of economic thought is a map of the world. It shows how neoclassical thinking evolved and why it became the dominant model.

This is already happening at some institutions. The University of Cape Town has an undergraduate programme in economic history and an excellent third-year course called the History of Economic Thought. At Stellenbosch University, where I teach, we have created an entire course in the second year to investigate African economic history and contemporary economic development. One semester starts with the Neolithic Revolution and ends with the economics of apartheid. Another discusses current education, health and other social policies to tackle poverty and inequality. I see this course as complementary to the standard economics courses. You cannot have the one without the other.

Another challenge is persuading students to study economics for longer. At Stellenbosch, only one in ten first-year economics students will enrol for economics in their third year. Some students obviously fail, but most simply choose not to continue. Those who only study the discipline for a year or two will not understand the nuances of the models, as Bassier argues.

But no one expects me to be a psychologist with just Psychology 1, or fluent in French with just French 2. This is why universities need to encourage more of the country’s brightest minds to choose economics through to post-graduate level. This will expose more students to better analytical tools, and produce the analytical skills so desperately needed to address the vexing economic issues that face the country.

Science is advanced by standing on the shoulders of giants. Decolonisation, when it’s done right, can add more shoulders to stand on.

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