22 Mar 2023

Behind the Research: Marlous van Waijenburg


by Shona Simkin

What sparked Marlous van Waijenburg’s interest in Africa’s economic development, and what excites her about this line of research? We talked with van Waijenburg, an assistant professor in the Business, Government, and International Economy Unit who teaches in the first year MBA required curriculum, about her work and what she likes to do in her spare time.

What is your area of research?
Big economic questions about why some countries are rich and others poor can be answered from different angles. There are lots of disciplines that weigh in—development economists, political scientists—and we’re all looking at different pieces of the puzzle. As an economic historian, I create new data from historical sources and try to shed light on long run development patterns, with a focus on African countries.

What are you working on now?
I just finished a bunch of projects and papers, so it’s an interesting moment. Over the next year I’m concentrating on completing my book, which is about the development of colonial tax systems. My book explores how African colonial governments solved what is known as the revenue problem—they colonized these different parts of the world but had no plan on how to govern them. During that round of empire building, the metropole was not willing to finance the process of colonial statehood. The doctrine of fiscal self-sufficiency meant that the colonial state building process had to be financed with local sources of taxation. With few local options available, this was a defining challenge for the colonial state.

I look at the records that come from the cash sources, but what makes my study different is that I also take into account the role of invisible taxes, most notably in the form of labor coercion. Forced labor is an implicit form of taxation because it doesn’t show up on the expenditure side, but the state uses it and then it also doesn’t show up on the revenue side. What does that tell us about the comparative nature and state of colonial state building? What differences and similarities do we see? I do this for about 30 British and French former territories. I try to give a long run understanding of why African tax systems are one of the weakest in the world—how it has taken shape and where we are in the process.

How did you become interested in Africa’s economic development patterns?
When I was learning about the comparative development of European economies versus other parts of the world, in grad school, I became curious not about Europe but about Africa. Compared to our deep understanding of the Industrial Revolution, there was a world of difference. There were (and still are) so many unanswered questions about Africa’s long-run development path. I became absolutely fascinated and started asking more and more questions about African development.

Sometimes answering one question leads you to another question and another, and the more I started working on Africa the more I became convinced that it was one of the most interesting parts of the world to work on. In part because our knowledge is more limited, so we can ask bigger questions—in that sense it’s very much a research frontier and it’s a challenging region to work on. Compared to other parts of the world, written records are limited and the data is always problematic. I work on the colonial period, so I have to be very mindful of the data I use and think about their biases. I like the challenge of that kind of work and what it teaches me.

How do you find data if there are so few records?
There are standardized statistics from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund from the 1960s onward. For economic historians, give or take 60 years is still a fairly short time horizon to think about processes of structural economic change. There are statistics for the colonial period, but they have to be treated with care. The precolonial era is more difficult because there are fewer written sources. Through methods like oral history and historical linguistics, African historians have done a remarkable job trying to get around such limitations. What I like about being a historian is that I can use both qualitative and quantitative insights.

As an economic historian, we always have to be alert to what kind of data we use and what the biases may be. We know that some colonial statistics—agricultural output and population censuses—are notoriously unreliable. Colonial governments needed to do basic bookkeeping, so tax records from France and Britain are fairly reliable data. While I certainly work with research assistants, I make sure to do a lot of the data work myself as well, especially with sensitive statistics that require human choices. There can be weeks and months that I spend behind spreadsheets—I personally love that time, it’s like a slow process discovery.

I learn a lot while I’m working in the spreadsheets and in the archives. I go to the colonial archives in Senegal, London, and Aix en Provence, and take tons of pictures—I observe what’s going on and a narrative starts forming in my head. It’s the same when I enter data, I notice right away if something stands out and I can make notes of it—as you work with the data it starts telling you a story. And then at some point your data is ready and you get to make that first figure and it’s addictive—I don’t know why I love it so much.

What do you like to do outside of work?
I sometimes need a creative outlet, so I do a lot of crafts with my daughter, who is almost seven—I don’t need high level creativity! I also like going to the beach, which is my place of relaxation in all seasons. I grew up on the beach in the Netherlands, so it feels very freeing and relaxing to me. My perfect weekend is getting in the car, driving to the Cape, going for a long beach walk and then having a nice drink or dinner out. I love going out to dinner and really missed that in the pandemic. And I love to travel—the pandemic made that very difficult too, so I hope in the years to come I get to go out and explore the world a bit more.

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