Malthus, Africa’s Albertine Rift, and Underappreciated Development Economists

From an article in the November 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine on Africa’s Albertine Rift:

By the mid-1980s every acre of arable land outside the parks was being farmed. Sons were inheriting increasingly smaller plots of land, if any at all. Soils were depleted. Tensions were high. Belgian economists Catherine André and Jean-Philippe Platteau conducted a study of land disputes in one region in Rwanda before the genocide and found that more and more households were struggling to feed themselves on little land. Interviewing residents after the genocide, the researchers found it was not uncommon to hear Rwandans argue that “war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources.” Thomas Malthus, the famed English economist who posited that population growth would outstrip the planet’s ability to sustain it unless kept in check by starvation, disease, or war, couldn’t have put it more succinctly.

André and Platteau do not suggest that the genocide was an inevitable outcome of population pressures, since the killings were clearly instigated by the decisions of power-hungry politicians.

Here is a link to the André and Platteau article mentioned in the article (click here for an ungated version; the link opens a .pdf document).

Jean-Philippe, whose work I feel is underappreciated by mainstream development economists but which I find consistently interesting, was one of my colleagues when I was on leave at the University of Namur in 2009-2010. Here is his RepEc page.

I especially like his two 1994 papers — “Behind the Market Stage Where Real Societies Exist,” parts I and II — in the Journal of Development Studies, in which Jean-Philippe took the Washington Consensus to task by explaining why one can usually not impose market institutions in place where they have not emerged organically. I usually assign both papers as readings in my development and law and economics seminars. Jean-Philippe also has a whole book on Institutions, Social Norms, and Economic Development.