Ground Breaker


Ismaila Dieng profiles Leonard Wantchekon, a former activist who plans to train the next generation of African economists


Ground Breaker Finance & Development, December 2016, Vol. 53, No. 4

Ismaila Dieng profiles Leonard Wantchekon, a former activist who plans to train the next generation of African economists

Prison breaks are rarely worth the effort. Most escapees are back behind bars within hours. But in 1986 when Leonard Wantchekon escaped from the jail where Mathieu Kérékou, then president of the small West African country of Benin, locked up political opponents, it paid off. Thirty years ago, the young activist fled jail for neighboring Nigeria. By the time he returned home after a decade, Wantchekon had earned a doctorate. Later, he taught at Ivy League universities in the United States, published articles in leading academic journals, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, one of the oldest and most prestigious learned societies in the United States.

His escape was daring, but not dramatic. One day, in December 1986, he asked to see a doctor outside the prison to treat his arthritis, the result of 18 months of torture for daring to call for an end to Kérékou’s dictatorial regime. The prison’s director trusted the 30-year-old leftist student; he had been to the same doctor twice before. But this time, Wantchekon, who faced the prospect of many more years of incarceration, had no intention of returning. He arranged for a car and a motorbike to take him to Nigeria.

Wantchekon, now a professor at Princeton University, is one of the few African economists teaching at a top U.S. university. His research, which has received considerable attention from development economists, focuses on the political and historical roots of economic development in Africa. He studies the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on contemporary African economic developments and examines how citizen engagement can reduce cronyism, improve democratic governance, and lay the groundwork for policies conducive to economic growth.

“Wantchekon’s research provides a unique perspective on economic development. It covers big and important topics, while still using rigorous statistical techniques and empirical methods,” says Harvard’s Nathan Nunn, one of Wantchekon’s coauthors and editor of the Journal of Development Economics. “His focus on politics and its role in the development process helps fill a giant gap that currently exists in development economics.”

Giving back to the continentWantchekon, who has lived in the United States for 24 years, follows the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team and is a big fan of its star LeBron James, who, like Wantchekon, is driven by a desire to give back to his community. James was determined to win the National Basketball Association championship for his hometown of Akron and home state of Ohio; Wantchekon aspires to train the next generation of African economists. After four years of planning, he opened the African School of Economics to provide first-class academic training to the continent’s young economists two years ago. Down the road, he plans to open undergraduate programs in economics, finance, management, statistics, and computer science. His goal is to build a critical mass of Africans with the training necessary to tackle the most pressing development issues facing the continent.

“When you live in Africa, the wonderful thing is that some of the most interesting challenges and puzzles of economic development are right at your window,” notes Wantchekon in an interview with F&D. The puzzles abound, but to date they have been dissected mainly outside the continent. Africa’s economic history is extensively researched worldwide, but few African-born researchers are involved in that research effort.

Last year, Grieve Chelwa, a Zambian postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, wrote in a widely read blog that “economics might have an Africa problem.” She noted that Oxford University’s Journal of African Economies, a prestigious and influential publication on African economic development issues, has only one Africa-based scholar on its 27-member editorial board. (Since the blog...

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