Dr Tinashe Nyamunda
I Am in Edinburgh, Scotland attending an Institute of New Economic Thinking festival (INET), as the co-ordinator of the Africa group, and Rethinking Economics. The organisation is the vision of Hungarian-American billionaire businessman George Soros who funds numerous open society initiatives around the world, including Southern Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular.
As an investor and academic, Soros has displayed a commitment embodied in INET’s activities around programmes aimed at coming up with new ways of thinking about the field of economics; both national and global.
At the various conferences that I have attended, particularly the plenary held in Budapest in 2016, Rethinking Economics event at the University of Zimbabwe in April this year and Decolonising the African economy, which I facilitated for South Africa from 7 to 9 June 2017; the consistent message was about whether we are getting things right economically in countries facing economic problems.
At the conferences, plenaries, workshops and festivals; similar to the one I am attending here; young brilliant minds congregate to share their ideas about academic topics that they work on.
World academic leaders in economics, philosophy, history and related disciplines give key note addresses and discuss issues relating to economics and ways of thinking about how the subject could potentially become useful to national economies.
This got me thinking about the state of our own economy, Zimbabwe, at the periphery of the world economy. It got me wondering to what extent we have such conversations going and how best we can take the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which the study of Economics as a discipline, and related disciplines such as Economic History, could be harnessed and made to engage with real economic issues of the day in a more direct and practical way.
The main idea for INET, according to the ideas I have picked from many of its key note speakers and some of its directors, are lies behind the discourse that Economics, as a discipline, is in serious crisis.
The often cited event is when Queen Elizabeth II raised the question of why economists had failed to see the recession of 2008 coming.
Equally connected to this issue is the question of how Economics has failed to deal with the problem of global poverty and inequality. These are some of the issues that leading economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, present at this conference, and Thomas Piketty, are trying to confront.
There is a growing realisation that the field of Economics, in many ways informed more by approaches, theories and models conceptualised in global north contexts, tends to be applied universally.
I am not an economist myself, but economistic and econometric approaches tend to be highly universal in their applications, yet as this movement for new economic thinking demonstrates, problems tend to be very contextual.
Among the other problems being confronted is the fact that young economists trained in orthodox economics are brilliant at using quantitative techniques to come up with impressive models about the economy. Admittedly, as a qualitative Economic Historian, I find it difficult to follow some of their presentations, but with time and more reading, I am gradually grasping the gists of their work. I often wonder why I never encounter young budding economists from my own country that I am confident have a lot to share as well as learn from their colleagues.
Anyway, also present are complexity and heterodox economists. To be clear, a very short comparison of different types of economics is as follows: orthodox economics describes what is generally viewed as mainstream economics, not a specific branch of the discipline per se, but often describes theories considered to be part of the neo-classical tradition. Complexity economics uses what is regarded as complexity science to addressing problems in economics and the economy as a system that is never quite in equilibrium, but is always in motion.
Anthropologists Caliscan and Callon have called this Economising rather than simply economics because of the perpetual and dynamic nature of the concept of Economics. Heterodox economics, anchored on the adjective heterodox, which captures doctrines at variance to what is considered orthodox or mainstream, tried to examine the economy from a different and fresh perspective.
Many of the young presenters who were likely trained in orthodox economics, but are encountering heterodox approaches for the first time provided intense, excellent quantitative based presentations on their countries. But the main challenge identified by some of the participants was the extent to which, at one level, their work tended to speak only to the elite of their discipline, the rule of the technocrat so to speak.
At another level, the other challenge was that their work was limited only to the economistic and econometric aspects of the economy, feeding into broad national indicators such as GDP, capturing mean and average results of development statistics of sectors in different country case studies. But they were speaking mainly in broad economistic terms, limited to techniques looking primarily at economics but completely ignoring other important consideration of politics and society, which were at best only represented as a variable and in many cases taken for granted.
This is where, and I stand to be corrected here and certainly hope I am not wrong, some of the economics practised in Africa and to some extent in Zimbabwe may be quite different. At this conference, and other INET events I have been involved in, it was certainly necessary to have these kind of presentations as a way of demonstrating the divide between orthodox economics and other disciplines.
Heterodox economists present at the conference, who are specialists in quantitative economic technics were among the first to point out this being problem of economics. There now appears to be a consensus of the importance of the humanities such as sociological, anthropological and historical approaches to understanding economic problems.
After all, telling an old sekuru or ambuya whose primary concern is getting the next meal that the Zimbabwean economy is set to grow by 2,7 percent means nothing. In many instances, whatever marginal growth experienced tends to benefit those with direct elite access to resources of wealth creation. The humanities help to bridge this gap by providing very specific ways in which ambuya na sekuru have managed historically through the historical economic changes in the country and the ways in which they view themselves as economic actors in very specific ways.
The humanities help formulate, in much more nuanced ways, the ways in which politics shape economics and dispel the fiction that politics and economics are different and cannot be mixed. Politics is at the very core and heart of economics. The problems of inequality, of poverty and other very economistic challenges are very directly connected to an interaction of local and global political actions.
The humanities are critical in de-universalising economic (broadly conceived) challenges and putting them in a very specific context.
Where economics give clearer expression to the transaction of local resources, both domestically and internationally, it struggles to communicate the ways in which this is politically facilitated and the extent to which these resources are distributed.
In many cases, it cannot explain the extent to which these transactions have informed state predation, corruption and authoritarianism in ways that political studies and history can, for example.
What I have encountered in the brilliant INET events that I have been part of has helped me to think much more deeply about our own country’s economy. The country’s universities have trained excellent economists, historians, political scientists, lawyers, sociologists and others that are domiciled at home and abroad.
All of these professionals have different ways of understanding the crisis that affects our economy, but in many cases these understandings have never really been properly reconciled. The dialogue on these issues occurs in silos, but I think a more productive way of understanding the problems we have face is by confronting disciplinary barriers and beginning a discussion for a much more complete understanding of where we are coming from and going.
The Rethinking Economics workshop that was sponsored by INET and hosted by the Department of Economic History and Economics at the University of Zimbabwe earlier this year is one way. Like the bigger INET conferences held elsewhere in the world, this workshop revealed that there is need to consider appreciating different disciplinary world views. Clearly, economic problems are not unique to Zimbabwe, but at this conference, I have learned about how other countries confront their challenges. One of the ways is through academic ideas as they are applied in national economies.
But for these ideas to mean anything, the different disciplines have to introspect, and appreciate the limitations that make them less effective. Our academics could constitute a powerful voice in our country’s problems, but at present they make very little impact, often overshadowed by politicians.
What we need, in my view, is to begin a interdisciplinary dialogue about our economic (and political) problems, and begin an honest and powerful discourse that confronts these challenges.
As we managed to do for a brief moment of dialogue between Economics and Economic History at UZ earlier this year, and between academics and political representatives that we present, we can begin such a dialogue in a variety of ways and express them through many avenues. We could begin our own home grown movement of new economic (and indeed political) thinking that could ultimately benefit Zimbabwe and its inhabitants in the long run.