Minorities, Monoculture and Myopia: The Case for Decolonising Economics

Words by Ali Al-Jamri

On 17 May, Rethinking Economics HQ participated in a panel titled “Challenges and opportunities of Economics curriculum around decolonisation, gender and diversity”. The panel, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, was part of a one-day conference organised by Reteaching Economics and the International Initiative for Promoting Political Economy. The following speech was delivered to an audience of pluralist academics and addresses them as teachers – Ali Al-Jamri, Diversity Campaign Manager

Rethinking Economics as a charity campaigning for economic education reform was established five years ago, but the student movement for this change has been around for nearly a decade now. Rethinking Economics, as many of you will know, is an international network of over 60 student groups in 30 countries. We work to empower our student organisers and support the campaigns that they lead on.

Economic pluralism has been the bedrock of our campaigns for many years, but we recognised from an early stage that if all we’re doing is replacing one group of white, rich, male thinkers in the curriculum with another group of white, rich, male thinkers, then that alone will not be enough. Put another way, plurality of thought can only be meaningfully achieved with a diversity of thinkers.

With that in mind, Rethinking Economics has recently adopted as a key strategic goal the ambition of diversifying the people who study and practice economics, and in my role as Diversity Campaign Manager I’m working keenly with our student Rethinkers who are passionately working to bring about such a change.

At Rethinking Economics, we define Diversity as an environment inclusive of people irrespective of their backgrounds, which does not discriminate based on identity, and which actively makes invisible people, visible. This is our current language, but we are continuing to develop it.

But diversity can only be meaningfully achieved if we address the root causes of inequality. Diversity is an outcome of campaigns which address systemic barriers, including patriarchy, racism and elitism. To try and attain diversity without addresses the roots of inequality is to fall in the trap of tokenism.

From this perspective, decolonising economics is one of the means by which we can attack systemic barriers which exist and persist in the curriculum and the institution. As I’ve said, at Rethinking Economics, we work through our international network of student campaigners, and I wanted to give you all a snapshot of some of the great work students are doing on this.

In Nigeria, we have students who are actively trying to come up with new labour market models that accurately reflect the Nigerian economy, exploring the issue through papers and articles. Western labour market theories which explain business hiring practices through the singular lens of profit maximisation are taught without critique in Nigerian universities and applied by Nigerian economists. Yet, it is standard practice in Nigeria for any business owner there to hire members of their extended family. This hiring of family cannot be explained by theories focused on profit maximisation. Instead, as one Nigerian student explained it to me, what we are witnessing is the way that Nigerian tribal culture plays out within modern business practice. This distinct cultural practice is critical to Nigerian business culture, and yet totally absent from economic analysis. There is a mismatch between taught economics and the reality. There is also a power dynamic at play here, of a Western economic model imposed upon an African country where it is simply not relevant, and that makes it a decolonising matter.

In the UK, we see growing interest in decolonising. Our group Pluralist Economics At Sussex recently held a Decolonising Economics workshop which saw 50 people in attendance, and are building on the significant interest garnered. Our group in Manchester has adopted Decolonising Economics as a major priority for the coming year and are planning a series of lectures on the subject, which will also promote lesser known voices in the field. They are also trying to work along interdisciplinary lines, and are in the process of reaching out to academics in related fields where the decolonising movement is more advanced, to learn from them.

Students from Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico have formed a Latin America Rethinking hub, DeAmericaSoy, and are in the process of setting up a conference which will critique the “one-size-fits-all” western economic model and seek to define economics around lines which better fit the Latin American context. Similarly, in South Africa, our student group will be hosting a Festival of Economic Pluralism in September in which decolonising will be one of the major themes explored. They’ll be bringing together economists, academics and students both in South Africa and regionally.

The takeaway from this is that students are hungry for a decolonised economics. These are students who recognise that economic dilemmas are rooted in post-colonial and racist contexts, and are trying to address them. They are moving from the question of What is decolonising? to How do I decolonise?, and they are actively experimenting in doing so. They don’t always have clear answers on the How yet, but they are working on it and we’re helping them within our network.

This leads me to consider where students and academics can work together, and here we have to consider the challenges ahead of us first. Things have moved slowly in economics, and you will find many senior academics still struggling to wrap their heads around the idea that perhaps neoclassical economics does not have all the answers. How do you begin to talk about decolonising economics to people for whom pluralist economics is still a radical thought? This is one of the challenges we are facing in today’s environment.

Part of the problem is that economics as a profession is not diverse. The statistics I’m about to read out to you are all about the gender imbalance, you will notice, and I’ll explain why in just a moment. Consider:

  • Globally, women make up no more than 27% of the world’s economists.
  • Women make up just 29% of academics in Economics departments in the UK, and just 17% of Economics professors.
  • Looking at university students now, women make up just a third of economics students at university, at a time when over 50% of all British university students are women.
  • At a college level, 0.9% of British schoolgirls with the option to student economics at A-Level pick the subject, and just 1% go on to study any economics modules at all at university.

Now, I’ve had to hone in on the lack of diversity from a gender perspective because while institutions including universities, the Higher Education Statistics Agency and the Royal Economic Society have started to track racial, ethnic and class disparities, the data has not been gathered with the same rigour as it has been on gender. Despite that, we know that disadvantages overlap, and trends in other disciplines and fields indicate to us that where women are disadvantaged, that disadvantage is multiplied in the experiences of black and minority ethnic and working class women.

One final statistic: the Black Female Professors Forum lists on their website just seven professors of economics in the UK who are non-white women. Seven. Not one of them is black.

It is fair to say that Economics remains an appallingly white, male and affluent profession. Although I have focused on Britain, there is no reason to think that the situation is significantly different in other countries – gender, class and racial imbalances persist globally in the field.

Clearly, there are major institutional and systemic barriers which need to be overcome, but by working together, students and teachers can begin chipping away at this problematic order, replacing it with something new, gender balanced and decolonised.

There are opportunities ahead of us. We need to recognise that the problems discussed are not unique to economics, and that others are facing the same issue in higher education.

  • In Manchester, academics at the School of Environment, Education and Development have successfully introduced a Decolonising Geography module for third year Geography students, which includes as one of its learning outcomes “To be active participants in the decolonisation of the curriculum within Geography at University of Manchester”.
  • In Sussex, the Student Union is running a Co-Producing the Curriculum workshop series, bringing students and staff together in non-hierarchical spaces to revise course modules from decolonial, anti-racist, feminist and queer perspectives.

These kinds of activities are happening in universities across the country and teachers should look for these opportunities to work with their students to decolonise the curriculum.

Another opportunity is to bring in academics from other departments to guest lecture. Political economists, economic historians, geographers, and more besides often sit outside Economics departments but straddle interdisciplinary lines. They can be brought into the lecture rooms to provide alternative perspectives and critiques on topics discussed in class. As these links grow, consider co-creating curriculum content with other departments.

If there are no channels for these kinds of activities in your institution, then look at fostering discussion groups and alternative reading lists for interested students. If there is a Rethinking Economics student group in your university or city, you have a potential group right there who are invested in curriculum reform, ready to be tapped into.

Finally, I urge teachers to look out for your students and actively support those who may not fit in. One economics graduate I recently met who came from a mixed-race, working class background, told me how proud he was to have studied economics and sees it as a route to help his community. But he was the only non-white, working class person in his year, and he nearly quit in his first semester after a privately-educated classmate approached him to buy drugs. Not all students would have persisted their studies in the face of such blatant racism. Teachers have a role to play in making the classroom a welcoming environment for students from these backgrounds.

I believe we are at an interesting launching point. The case for decolonising economics is being made in rooms like this around the UK and the world. This activity will only be further galvanised by academic staff working together with their students. Thank you.

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