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The Harvard Government Department’s African Apathy

The Center for Government and International Studies houses the Government department, including many of its professors' offices.
The Center for Government and International Studies houses the Government department, including many of its professors' offices. By Delano R. Franklin
By Peter N. Jones, Crimson Opinion Writer
Peter N. Jones ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Mather House.

After each meeting of my African politics class last semester, my mind buzzed with new revelations. It felt like I had unlocked a field of study previously unknown to me. Having spent my short academic career essentially thinking ‘international relations’ was a shorthand for the caprices of permanent United Nations Security Council members, the opportunity to learn about complex political interactions on the African continent assumed a new magnetism.

What I didn’t realize was that this feeling manifested perhaps the greatest curricular blind spot in Harvard’s Department of Government.

As far as I could find, Harvard offers only one class centered squarely on African politics: Gov 94GD: “Africa: Power and Politics.” The class, an option within the department’s Gov 94 seminar program, fielded just 10 students last semester, including myself. What’s more, its instructor — Christopher E. Rhodes ’04 — isn’t even a full-fledged Harvard faculty member but a visiting lecturer from across the Charles River at Boston University.

The course’s continent-wide scope means that graduating students might not be able to call themselves experts on African affairs, but they could probably hold their own in a 30-second conversation on the Lord’s Resistance Army, a step or three beyond most Americans. And most crucially, the class casts light upon a region of the world that traditional international relations inquiry far too often leaves in the dark.

Harvard’s undergraduate programming focused on African government should not consist entirely of an afternoon chat between 10 students. The department should, at minimum, provide an unlimited enrollment, lecture-based survey course to the effect of Steven R. Levitsky’s class on Latin American comparative politics, lest budding Harvard scholars of government graduate without any knowledge of a region that grows more crucial to the global order each day.

This 2022-23 academic year, a course directory search for “Africa politics” yields disappointing results. Of just 12 independent Faculty of Arts and Sciences results, two are literature surveys, three are more focused on colonialism and postcolonial development, two concern only North Africa and the Middle East, and one is John L. Comaroff’s anthropology of law course. Other than Gov 94GD, the closest thing to a region-wide government class is Hist 1901: “Nationalism, Political Independence, and Economic Development in Africa,” which markets itself more as a journey in historical and structural analysis than a modern-day assessment of political actors and forces. There seems to exist no class on contemporary African politics beyond my little seminar.

This dearth of knowledge couldn’t persist at a more inopportune geopolitical moment, as formerly weak African nations have begun to play far greater roles in both the global economy and international politics at large. The legacy of colonialism in African state-building allowed extractive institutions — mechanisms that social scientists define as being “designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society to benefit a different subset” — to persist long after independence. An example would be the exploitative Kimberley diamond mines in the British Cape Colony, from which colonial profits flowed to a small circle of private magnates and postcolonial profits flowed to the colossal diamond-trade superpower De Beers Group, whose Consolidated Mines subsidiary owned the Kimberley mines until 2016.

Now, however, African leaders are replacing these institutions with more sustainable investment partnerships. As one accounting firm noted, extractive industries in Africa accounted for over half of investment every year save one between 2005 and 2011, but made up a minority of investment in every year save one between 2012 and 2018.

If the promise of greater participation in global markets isn’t enough, consider foreign policy: Africa has quickly become ground zero for a proxy war of influence between China and the United States. Over the last 20-plus years, China has taken on a rapacious series of development initiatives in Africa, formalized in 2013 as the Belt and Road Initiative. In August 2022, the Biden-Harris administration called China’s initiatives a strategy to “challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments.” Clearly, an in-class exploration of these trends through an African political lens justifies whatever low cost to Harvard it would exact.

A broad African politics class could have value that extends beyond the salience of its material, however. To pass on making available a broad and pluralistic image of African politics to Harvard students creates dangerous room for the “single story” of African homogeneity to take hold; students will not necessarily know that African governance ranges from a robust parliamentary republic in Botswana to an authoritarian regime headed by the world’s longest ruling dictator in Equatorial Guinea. Instead, the archetypal, all-too-common perception that sub-Saharan Africa is some amalgamation of identical, weak feudal states will find new hosts to infect.

Granted, it might be unfair to place all of the blame on Harvard’s course design. The total class size of 10 in Gov 94GD does not imply any kind of overwhelming demand for knowledge of African government. More troubling still was the class makeup, as most of its students introduced themselves as hailing from some African nation — suggesting students without a personal connection to Africa were less likely to pursue studies thereof. Still, there is no reason to believe a well-taught, gripping class on African political affairs could not build momentum among curious students and attract a healthy enrollment.

Harvard says it endeavors to educate leaders of the future. Today’s interconnected world demands that an adept leader bear a nuanced understanding of all places and peoples. In seeking to convey this understanding, Harvard must begin with the most obvious unit of measurement: the classes we take.

Peter N. Jones ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Mather House.

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