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Wantchekon strives for ‘pan-African’ university

Politics professor Leonard Wantchekon, prison activist turned professor, is in the process of founding a university in Africa, which he hopes will become a “pan-African” university that would provide students with a “modern American-style university” experience. The school, the African School of Economics, is set to open in Benin in September 2014.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Wantchekon is hoping to build a “critical mass” of African students who will help shape the leadership of Africa as he attempted to do in his youth. He spent his youth as a leftist activist in Benin and spent 18 months in prison for these actions.

A farmers’ son with big dreams

Before his successes, Wantchekon was a young activist in central Benin, a West African nation of 10 million people, with an agricultural economy. The son of subsistence farmers, he grew up very poor, with his family oppressed by harsh taxes.

“I experienced firsthand what an abusive government can do to great people like my parents,” Wantchekon explained.

From a young age, he was fascinated by events and ideas far from his home, he explained.

“There is something very strong and powerful being a youngster to know what is happening in Vietnam and in Chile those days,” Wantchekon said. “Your world is large.”

When students returned from studying in Europe, they shared with him the leftist rhetoric of independence movements from around the world. This rhetoric inspired him to join a local student activist organization when he was in the eighth grade.

Wantchekon became increasingly active in the leftist movement, and in 10th grade was arrested for writing a newspaper article critical of  the military regime then in power, led by then-President Mathieu Kérékou. As a mathematics student at the National University of Benin, he founded a movement to bring democracy to Benin, which organized the first general strike of students, he said.

These activities got him expelled from the university and forced him to go into hiding from 1979 to 1984. While in hiding, he and other leaders in hiding managed to organize student activities by staying close to the school, he said.

When Benin’s government at the time came under pressure to be less oppressive to those in hiding, they returned, but did not see the democratic reforms they had demanded. They managed to organize a large protest of university students, high school students and civil servants, he said. Within three months, Wantchekon was arrested again. This time, he spent 18 months in prison, including some time in solitary confinement.

“[These were] very difficult circumstances. I was tortured,” Wantchekon recalled.

In his 18th month in prison, Wantchekon escaped by faking disease, he said. He was sent to the hospital and returned twice. On his third visit, when surveillance was less stringent because they trusted he would return, he escaped to Nigeria. From Nigeria, he went to the Ivory Coast and then Canada. His then-girlfriend and future wife went to Canada to meet him in 1987.

There, he began a career in academia. He received his M.A. in Economics from Laval University and University of British Columbia in 1992 and received a Ph.D. in Economics from Northwestern University in 1995. He taught at Yale from 1995 to 2001 and at New York University from 2001 to 2011.

An informed citizenry for Africa: “We need that desperately”

Born from the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy, the African School of Economics will provide master’s-level training to African students so that they may have more training in the skills required to do research. The Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy is a non-profit, independent organization dedicated to research in the application of public policies.

“I started bringing some African students over to Yale and some of them to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in economics and political science,” Wantchekon explained. “But I was not very successful because the students were not necessarily well-prepared, and it was such a big jump coming from Africa straight to Harvard or Yale.”

To address this problem, Wantchekon founded the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy in Cotonou, Benin’s capital city, in 2004. It began by preparing students with bachelor’s degrees in mathematics, economics and statistics, then began teaching political science as well, as Wantchekon said that he hoped the school would educate those who would go on to become policymakers.

“[I want] not only to train the next generation of businessmen, but also to train the next generation of public officials,” Wantchekon said. The African School of Economics will be located in the nearby city of Abomey-Calavi.

The African School of Economics’s Board of Directors includes chief economist of the World Bank’s Africa region, Shantayanan Devarajan ’75. Devarajan said that when Wantchekon contacted him to ask him if he wanted to be involved in developing the school, they both agreed that there was a great need to provide better training for African students.

“One of the things that I was advocating as chief economist for Africa is the importance in Africa of having an informed citizenry, [of having] African policy be designed and implemented by African economists,” Devarajan said. “We need that desperately in the continent.”

The institute now has two parts, Akim Adekpedjou said, the Institute’s administrator. Adekpedjou is also an associate professor of statistics at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. The “pro-government” part teaches data analysis, while the other offers a master’s program in public economics and applied statistics, Adekpedjou explained, adding that the pro-government part is going to expand with the creation of the African School of Economics.

After six years, the institute had trained about 80 students, most of whom now work in several institutions and universities in Africa, according to Wantchekon. He added that he also hopes to offer programs in other disciplines, including business and liberal arts education. Devarajan said that the board has also been interested in including political economy in the curriculum.

“I realized that my research made me value liberal arts education much more highly,” Wantchekon said. “I thought that a liberal arts tradition should be introduced not only in the undergraduate curriculum but also in the graduate curriculum.”

He said that he also envisions the African School of Economics as having a “very vibrant set of cultural activities,” including music, performance, dance and arts on campus.

As of now most of the core faculty will come from Canada and the United States, but the African School of Economics team is actively recruiting faculty around the world, including Europe, Africa and Asia. The University has provided them with an office with two staff members dedicated to working on the African School of Economics transition, Wantchekon said. Several Princeton faculty members serve on a board that advises faculty recruitment.

Adekpedjou said that he agrees that Wantchekon’s experience in the region has aided the program’s expansion by providing the human resources and contacts needed to develop an academic program.

“[He brings in] people – professors and well-known people who work in a big institution — to come down to the Institute and teach students, instruct people over there in the research parts of the institute, have them develop their research, help them be successful in what they are doing,” Adekpedjou said. “So he brings to the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy a lot of experience.”

Those who are working with him to develop the African School of Economics said that Wantchekon brings even more to the project than recruiting faculty members.

“It’s more than his contacts. It’s energy,” Devarajan added. “I’ve never seen somebody so dedicated and so enthusiastic. Leonard is just really driven to achieve this. We wouldn’t have gotten to where we are if it hadn’t been for his relentless pursuit.”

One of Wantchekon’s goals for the African School of Economics is to attract students from all over Africa, creating a “pan-African identity.” While the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy’s service was mainly limited to West Africa, Wantchekon said that there has been interest from other regions in sending students to the African School of Economics.

“There is a pan-African identity already,” Wantchekon said. “Yes, there are divisions. Yes, Africa remains fragmented in terms of economic barriers and trade barriers, but there is the sense that Africans have a common historical experience, and they have a common historical future.”

Una Osili, now an associate professor of economics at Indiana University, was a year below Wantchekon in the Northwestern graduate program. Osili said that while most students in the graduate program were focused, Wantchekon was particularly driven, possibly due to his activist history in Benin.

“There were scholars who were working on conflict and on democracy but Leonard had actually been involved in the pro-democracy movement,” Osili said. “I think all those experiences made him very focused, very driven and really unusual because he was not just able to look at the theoretical models but also infuse them with a lot of reality.”

Osili added that Wantchekon has always had an interest in supporting the field’s growth and in encouraging other young scholars.

“It’s not everybody who has that perspective to not just achieve on their own but also to open doors to others,” Osili said. “He’s always been one to open doors for others, as an activist, as a scholar and now as someone who is building an institution.”

Wantchekon’s academic research focuses on using experimental political science to explore the effectiveness of political interventions on voting turnout. He structures these studies in a way comparable to clinical trials in epidemiological studies, in which each population under study is given a different treatment. Wantchekon’s studies implement a different strategy for encouraging voter turnout on each population, then observe the strategies’ effectiveness.

This work has brought him back to Benin a number of times. The first time he returned to his home country was in 1996, five years after the country’s current democratic government came to power and began allowing exiles like himself to return.

“I was not used to living in complete freedom in my country. I was there when it all started, when nothing was possible. It was great to see that it actually did happen,” Wantchekon explained.

Wantchekon attributes the drive and energy that others see in him to the inspiration he gained as a young man, speaking to Beninese students who had returned from abroad.

“Today, that’s what’s lacking,” Wantchekon said. “Many people who study abroad do not have the obligation to go back to where they come from and meet with younger people, talk to them and be part of the same organization.”

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