By Alex Dobyan, Administrative Associate, CEGA
The Working Group in African Political Economy (WGAPE) is an international forum for academic researchers who combine deep field research experience in Africa with training in political economy methods. Founded in 2002, the group brings together faculty and advanced graduate students in Political Science and Economics who combine deep field research experience in Africa with training in political economy methods. The group meets semi-annually to discuss the work-in-progress of its regular members and invited guests. WGAPE is committed to incorporating African scholars into the network in order to create and build collaborative relationships, and falls under CEGA’s Global Networks portfolio.
Gaetan Tchakounte Nandong first heard of WGAPE through a course on elections at the African School of Economics taught by Professor Kim Dionne (Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College.) Dionne included a cutting-edge working paper in her syllabus-- Asunka et al.’s “Electoral Fraud or Violence: The Effect of Observers on Party Manipulation Strategies. As the paper hadn’t yet been published, this generated some skepticism of its merits among ASE students – but Dionne was able to point to the paper’s inclusion in a WGAPE meeting as a sign of the paper’s quality, despite it not yet being peer-reviewed. Through this, Gaetan grew interested in WGAPE, and resolved to submit a paper to the meeting. His first submission to WGAPE—a paper that developed a framework to explain absenteeism amongst public healthcare workers in Cameroon—was rejected.
But the news was not all bad. Gaetan still got to travel to Abu Dhabi for the Learning Days activities held before the WGAPE meeting, sponsored by Evidence in Government and Politics (EGAP) and the Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences (BITSS). For three days he and nine other African researchers learned about social science research methods; for Gaetan, randomization strategies proved most useful. However, he felt that the most valuable learning came outside the classroom, during meals and coffee breaks, where he found a group of kindred spirits – other promising researchers in African political economy from around the continent and world, along with a handful of more experienced faculty at major universities in the field.
The experience was so valuable that Gaetan resubmitted a paper to WGAPE’s national meeting at Berkeley this past June. This time, he tried a different approach, submitting a design for a new project on varying levels of entrepreneurship among different ethnic groups in Cameroon. As he describes it, “The Bamileke ancestral tradition for instance, contains particular features which according to anthropologists, explain the natives’ self-employment attitudes. Most of children in the Bamileke localities have their own part of the farm – they sell outputs and manage the income themselves. We therefore became interested in examining how traditions relate to entrepreneurship following these observations.” Gaetan and his co-author propose that pre-colonial institutions shaped the attitudes of Cameroonians in ways that persist to this day, and have designed an experiment that will recruit participants from across Cameroon to play economic games that will empirically test attitudes towards entrepreneurship among different groups.
This time, his research design was accepted, making Gaetan one of two African researchers to present at the meeting, and the only one based on the African continent. With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, WGAPE also sponsored five non-presenting African scholars to attend the meeting. Together, these seven scholars, including Gaetan, attended a training session conducted by EASST fellow Michael Mbate, the Annual Bank Conference on Africa, and a Research Transparency and Reproducibility Training sponsored by BITSS.
His research is on hold while he begins his graduate work at Princeton, but the WGAPE experience has stuck with him. “The feedback was very helpful for a novice researcher like me. It’s always a pleasure to have experienced researchers reading and commenting on your work.” Gaetan still keeps in touch with the researchers he connected with at WGAPE, seeking advice and trading comments on ongoing projects.