Economics has an African women problem

The Knowledge Portal of the Nawi Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective is a digital apex platform that collates and curates African women’s knowledge resources on the economy.

Minsters Mthuli Ncube of Zimbabwe and and Peggy Serame of Botswana. Credit Paul Morigi for the Brookings Institution via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

On a spectrum of marginalization, African women’s thought on the economy arguably remains the least visible, a convergence of the problems that economics has both with gender and with Africa. Even within feminist economic spaces and other areas where gender and the economy are debated, the works of African women or women of African descent often remain unseen, unrecognized, and under-referenced. For example, a recent click on this Wikipedia list of feminist economists showed only one African-American economist listed (and no African nationals at all).

The reasons behind this invisibility are many and have resonance across and within the other technical fields that African and Black women more broadly consistently find themselves under-recognized. This reality is now being more visibly highlighted by hashtags on social media such as #CiteBlackWomen.

At its most raw, however, good old-fashioned anti-Blackness—both conscious and unconsciously conjured—has always been at the heart of a pervasive denigration of both African and Black intellectualism.  But more specifically for African women, the omnipresence of foreign aid and the development industry’s prominent part in casting African women as eternal “beneficiaries” means that their thoughts and positions on such a zealously guarded field as economics face the combined neo-colonial toxicity of fear (for the challenge presented to the status quo) and a deep-rooted, prejudiced disdain for African women’s capacities.  As Everjoice Win, a Zimbabwean feminist, sums it up:

Villagization of non-poor activists has resulted in the often-heard refrain, ‘Africa has no policy analysis capacity’. The results are all too visible; it is still largely Northern academics or feminists who write and get published; it is their work that is used by policymakers and is quoted in international media.

The neo-coloniality behind all this cannot be overstated, and even more so because African feminist thought often challenges the extractive and patriarchal model of neoliberal capitalist production that has resulted in jobless growth, increased wealth and inequality gaps, and reduced public spending on much-needed services and infrastructure even while our countries accrue more debt from international finance institutions and other extra-continental actors.

From a more technological perspective, the unbalanced power relationships inherent within the digital universe have also contributed to atomizing and further suppressing African women’s knowledge sources. Much of what is on the internet is widely dispersed and not always optimized to be easily found through the dominant search engines we’ve all become accustomed to.

Indeed, despite the best intentions of the inventor of the Web to keep it free at the point of access, the internet has become a corporate-dominated and commodified space nonetheless; large organizations and companies can hire the best search engine optimization (SEO) talent to guarantee their outputs appear toward the top, drowning-out the digital footprint of everyone else speaking truth to power on similar keywords tapped into Google. The internet is therefore also a colonized domain, and one that marginalized knowledge creators need to find ways and means to continuously challenge and dismantle if their thoughts are to be read and heard.

It doesn’t help that economics is often presented as highly technical and specialized, economics is an area that many feel unqualified to ever comment on or simply engage with.  This has created a tacitly accepted distance between those who influence and make decisions on the economy and those who must live with the consequences of those decisions.

But as with everything else, gendered, racial, regional, and class-based power structures have contrived to successfully create and maintain this distance, with prominent economic thought not only dominated by men, but also globally driven by those who are white, middle class, and from the “global North.”

Compounding this, the dominance of neoliberal economics over the last four decades has sought to consign other perspectives to the margins of acceptability, suppressing the visibility of more pluralist positions and knowledge resources while further minimizing wider engagement on economic issues by those outside of its self-perpetuating haloed halls.

To start addressing these issues, the Nawi Afrifem Macroeconomics Collective, of which I am part, has launched a knowledge portal, a digital apex platform that collates and curates African women’s knowledge resources on the economy.

As a growing online database of multimedia articles, academic papers, blogs, speeches, vlogs, podcasts, and other audio-visuals, the portal aims to challenge the veil of exclusivity that surrounds economic thinking by offering African feminist alternatives to the narrow orthodoxies currently dominating policy making spaces. For example, there you will find research papers such as Lyla Latif’s exploration of African fiscal space, debt and illicit financial flows; Abi Sene’s expose of Western non-profit interests compromising African rights to land, and an animated short by Marema Ndoye giving a feminist analysis of Public Private Partnerships.

For those of us involved in it, Nawi Knowledge Portal offers a doorway that starts to cut through some of these barriers by searching and collating African women’s thoughts into one place. Beyond listing pieces available on the Internet, the Portal also references work that has yet to be digitized, for example, printed books or anthology chapters. Noting their existence is just the beginning; the Nawi Collective will also explore ways to make such pieces—along with work locked behind paywalls—freely available wherever possible.

The portal also aims to capture older knowledge published pre-internet as recognition not only of the shoulders that we all stand on today, but because some of that wisdom may hold the answers Africa needs right now. And even as the portal continues to identify and make visible African women’s technical research offerings on the economy (both to show what exists and to identify gaps), the presence of podcasts, webinars, and other multimedia aims to challenge the way knowledge is policed and attributed value.

For some time now, the mantra of “pass the microphone” has become popular for describing the process of empowering African women’s voices; an act of benevolence on the part of those who currently control the narrative. Through the creation of the Nawi Knowledge Portal however, we’ve decided it’s time to construct and bring our own microphones to the stage.

Further Reading