The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Spotlight Scholar

Research Meets Policy

Acclaimed economist leads the way to better policies for Africa
  • UMass Amherst economist Leonce Ndikumana with city street in background

Africa’s Odious Debts: How Foreign Loans and Capital Flight Bled a Continent has been highly praised for providing a compelling analysis of the problem of capital flight, one of the structural problems that perpetuate Africa’s low performance and its economic dependence.

The societal issues that stand between many African countries and economic stability vary, but according to economist Léonce Ndikumana, strong public policy can lay the framework for more equal, inclusive development across the continent. With a foot in both the research and policy worlds, Ndikumana is peeling back the impoverished, conflict-ridden layers of African society to reveal its vastly underexploited potential—potential he insists can be realized through open dialogue and informed policies.

In addition to serving as the director for the African Development Policy program in the UMass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), Ndikumana (above) is a member of the United Nations Committee on Development Policy. Ndikumana believes strongly that good policy is based on good research; that their union is essential to the formation of sound policies in developing nations around the world.

In 2011, Ndikumana was appointed as the first Andrew Glyn Professor of Economics, an endowed chair held jointly in PERI and the Department of Economics. Ndikumana embodies the spirit of the late economist Andrew Glyn—British scholar, researcher and activist known for tackling real-world problems with a commitment to social justice.

Ndikumana recently co-authored a book with PERI colleague James Boyce entitled, Africa’s Odious Debts: How Foreign Loans and Capital Flight Bled a Continent. The book has been highly praised for providing a compelling analysis of the problem of capital flight, one of the structural problems that perpetuate Africa’s low performance and its economic dependence.

“This [capital flight], we find, is a severe drain on African economies. This is almost like a paradox…at the same time capital is fleeing the continent, the continent needs a lot of money,” Ndikumana says.

Ndikumana is uniquely equipped to address these research problems because of his extensive experience in the field, to which he attributes a large part of his academic success. He served as Chief of Macroeconomic Policy Analysis for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa for two years, and consecutively the Director of the Department of Development Economics Research and Director of the Department of Operational Resources and Policy at the African Development Bank for three years—a period of time he refers to as his “other” doctoral work.

“It was actually a big eye opener as to how little I knew about Africa…being in the field was like going to another school—like life economics,” Ndikumana says.

Ndikumana is employing this expertise at PERI as he researches the role of financial systems in promoting development in African countries. His work has uncovered large African populations without access to even the most basic financial resources, such as bank accounts and loans. Ndikumana says there is a huge disparity there—small business owners are the ones charged with providing employment, yet many African countries lack the required resources to invest and create investment.

Ndikumana says that researchers in the US are just beginning to broach the issues that plague African countries. For this reason he was inspired to return to UMass to contribute to expanding teaching and research on Africa.

“The idea is to give a chance to the UMass community to actually see what are the burning issues in African development and how we can get engaged, and hopefully inspire students to do research in these areas. I think it’s a huge opportunity for us,” says Ndikumana.

In addition to teaching his UMass Amherst students, Ndikumana helps develop training modules for African policy makers as part of PERI’s African Development Policy program. Most recently, he and his colleagues delivered training workshops on “capital flight reversal and development financing” in Dakar, Senegal and another on “Macroeconomic Policy for Inclusive Growth, Employment Creation and Poverty Reduction” in Nairobi and Kenya. They are planning more workshops on themes including policies in conflict and post-conflict countries in Africa’s Great Lakes Region and Central Africa. These workshops explore ways to resolve current conflicts, recover from past conflict, and prevent the conflicts from happening again. Ndikumana also helps organize a high-level speaker series devoted to specific obstacles to progress in Africa. He is proud of the university’s support of his work, of PERI’s policy oriented research and of the Economics Department’s heterodox economics—a branch of economics that sits outside of “mainstream economics.”

“I see ourselves trying to develop a convening space for a dialogue on African development—that’s my dream. If people could see UMass as a place where they can come and actually breathe African development policy...that’s what I would like to see,” Ndikumana says.

Amanda Drane '12

January 2013