In 1967, having graduated from university with a degree in economics, I earned the right to place BSc Econ after my name. Had I gained the equivalent qualification as an architect here in Kenya I would now call myself Arch. Mike Eldon; if I would have become an accountant I would now boast of being CPA Mike Eldon; and as an engineer I would swagger in the glory of being identified as Eng. Mike Eldon. Not to mention our “learned friends” in the legal profession. Yet as a ‘mere’ economist I must humbly introduce myself as simply Mr. Mike Eldon.
Why is this? The question has fleetingly passed through my mind from time to time. But it was only when I heard from Dr. Julius Muia, the Principal Secretary in the State Department for Planning (at least, having earned a PhD, he is able to place “Dr.” before his name), that one of his goals is to uplift the status of economists in this country that I began to think about the issue more seriously.
I reliably learned that the national government has over 400 economists who functionally report to the Principal Secretary, Planning – but that no fresh ones have been recruited since 2011.
Dr. Muia informed me that the State Department for Planning recently asked the Commission for University Education to establish how many students are studying economics and related programmes in our universities, and he was amazed to be told that it was over 25,000.
So now he wants to create closer links between them and their professors, and the economists in his ministry; and he also is looking into how to form an Economists and Statisticians Association of Kenya, ‘ESAC’. (Yes, another neglected discipline, the statistical one.)
Back to my education in economics. Sure, economists are often mocked, and maybe, just maybe, for good reason. First we are told that they can never agree on how to deal with the issues in their field – hence the line that ‘if you were to lay out all the economists in the world end-to-end you would come to no conclusion’.
And then, right back from when I was a student over half a century ago, it was said that economists could never get even their diagnoses about the economy right, never mind any prescriptions, as they were “always applying yesterday’s theory” – that was by now already out of date and discredited. (Shades of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme?)
Leaving the all-too-easy mockery aside I am so grateful that, lacking enthusiasm for my science A-Level subjects in high school, I went along with my father’s suggestion that I should consider studying economics at university – as he had done in the 1920s at the London School of Economics, travelling from his native Romania to do so.
My years in the mid-sixties at University College London opened up my powers of critical analysis and connected me to the big economic issues of the day, assets that I have carried with me ever since.
Little wonder therefore that I am still in touch with Vicky Chick, one of my lecturers from my time at UCL, and that a few months ago I was happy to respond to an invitation to pay tribute to Prof. Spraos, the then head of the economics department, on the occasion of his 90th birthday.
A belated benefit of my BSc Econ is that in my work with the World Bank in recent years I have been forced to resuscitate my dormant economics grounding, allowing me to speak in the language of industrial-strength experts in the domain.
In conclusion let me applaud Dr. Muia for his determination to raise the profile and status of economists and also statisticians, so that together they can develop a more influential voice in our society as they lay out the options we face, and help us reach rational sustainable solutions.
We are all potential beneficiaries of such a noble initiative, and so I am all for it.