Mobilizing Researchers to End Poverty in Africa

July 8, 2014


From left to right: François Bourguignon, former director of the Paris School of economics and Makhtar Diop, Vice President for Africa at the World Bank, were among the speakers at the first Annual Bank Conference on Africa. 

@Ibrahim Ajaja/World Bank

  • On June 23-24, 120 scholars gathered at the Maison de la Recherche in Paris for the Annual Bank Conference on Africa (ABCA)
  • Harnessing Africa’s growth for faster poverty reduction was the theme of the conference, organized jointly by the Paris School of Economics and the World Bank’s Office of the Chief Economist for the Africa Region
  • In total, 47 research papers were presented during the two-day event, a number of them generated by young scholars from Africa

WASHINGTON, July 7, 2014 - Over the past 15 years, GDP growth in Africa has been higher than in the rest of the developing world, excluding China. Good news. But despite this tremendous economic growth, poverty reduction in Africa was less impressive, with nearly half of the population still living on less than US$1.25 a day per capita (2010). Scholars from all over the world recently gathered in Paris at Maison de la Recherche for the Annual Bank Conference on Africa, to discuss ways to make economic growth work better for the poorest families on the continent.

In his introductory remarks to the assembled researchers, Makhtar Diop, World Bank vice president for Africa, reminded the audience that “the legitimacy of the World Bank is not the dollar amount we put on the table; it is the knowledge and healthy policy dialogue it encourages.”

Diop encouraged his Chief Economist, Francisco Ferreira, to organize the inaugural event after Ferreira pitched the idea as one of a number of ways to mobilize the Bank’s Africa region behind promising new knowledge partnerships that can move us closer to achieving the twin goals of boosting shared prosperity and eliminating extreme poverty by 2030.

“The reason we decided to organize this conference was the realization that even though Africa is growing, and has been growing steadily for the past 20 years, poverty is falling too slowly, and we need to understand better why Africa’s growth is not translating into better and faster poverty reduction,” said Ferreira.

“There are lots of ways to learn about this and one of them is to bring together some of the brightest people working on economic research on Africa, from Africa itself, from North America, from Europe, from everywhere. To do that, we have partnered with the Paris School of Economics, which is a relatively young university but already ranked eighth in the world in terms of research output and has depth in research on development in Africa,” he added.

François Bourguignon, former chief economist and vice president of the World Bank, who until this year served as director of the Paris School of Economics, took the opportunity to announce the creation of a chair in African studies within the prestigious institute. At the PSE, whose motto is “economics serving society,” the chair will be a center for deliberation by top experts on questions related to Africa.

" The legitimacy of the World Bank is not the dollar amount we put on the table; it is the knowledge and healthy policy dialogue it encourages. "
Makhtar Diop, World Bank vice president for Africa

Makhtar Diop

World Bank vice president for Africa

Knowledge matters for Africa

According to Luc Christiaensen, World Bank senior economist who is co-leading a two-volume report on poverty in Africa, the purpose of such a conference is to inform the policy debate. “For instance, we know a lot about demographic trends in Africa. But what is its impact on poverty?” he asked, “and what is the evidence on the link between conflict and poverty in Africa?”

The ABCA conference creates a platform for scholars to put forth their work and receive feedback from their peers. Longstanding intricate issues, such as the optimal balance between growth, inequality and poverty reduction and better ways to help the poor manage risks were discussed, as were several new lines of inquiry and thinking about poverty reduction, such as the role of aspirations and the avenues opened by mobile money and technology. The continuing need to revisit the data and tell facts from myths in designing policies was also illustrated with emphasis on the rapidly changing agricultural and rural landscape in Africa.

In total, forty-seven research papers were presented to the 120 attendees during the two-day event, a number of them generated by young scholars and graduate students, several from Africa. “As academics, we don’t have much direct interaction with policy makers,” said Philip Verwimp, associate professor in development economics at Université Libre de Bruxelles, who was presenting his work on the effect of rebel taxation on civilian welfare in Burundi. “We have to join forces with larger institutions,” said Verwimp.

 “For instance, the World Bank is well-suited to advise governments on the economics of post-conflict reconstruction, a field related to my work,” he added (the 2015 session of the ABCA conference will focus on the economics of conflict in Africa and will be held at the University of California at Berkeley).

Zelalem Yilma from Ethiopia, now a Ph.D. student at the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, presented his research on the potential benefit of community-based insurance plans for economic welfare in Ethiopia. “If research is not connected to policy, it’s just an academic endeavor —which is not bad, but in the end, what you want to do is influence policy and have a social impact,” he said.

In September, Yilma will be among a cohort of young African Ph.D. students who will join the World Bank as research fellows. His goal? To get hands-on experience in development work and, hopefully, make a dent in Africa’s stubborn poverty numbers.