“The West must learn from the whole world”

The economist Felwine Sarr says the predominant form of economy should be overcome and re-invented.

Africa has the opportunity to avoid the mistakes made by the West, and to build up an economic model which also fulfills social-cultural needs. This was according to Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, who will be coming to a public discussion in Vienna next week. On the other side, the West should learn from the rest of the world, said Sarr, especially regarding a non-destructive relationship with nature.

Sarr became known to a wider public predominantly through his 2016 book Afrotopia. In the book, he develops a framework of ideas for Africa, which would free itself from the omnipotence of economics in every part of life, and throw off the forced Westernisation due to the colonisation of the continent.

The aim was to choose a holistic economic model which took into account the needs of the people and their relationship to each other. In 35 years, said Sarr, Africa would house around a quarter of the global population, and would have the highest proportion of people aged 15 to 45. “This demographic weight and this vitality will shift the social, political, economic and cultural balance on the planet”, he said in Afrotopia.

“A better understanding of the behavioural basics of the players, meaning their psychology, their culture and their social realities, would allow for a more efficient economic policy”, said the economist. The professor of economic sciences at the Gaston Berger University in Saint Louis (Senegal) aims at the core to get away from the over-emphasis on economic indices like gross domestic product (GDP) or income, and to better orient themselves by non-material values. After all, culture affected perceptions, attitudes, investment and saving habits, as well as individual and collective decisions. Sarr argued that with this, economic efficiency was strongly connected to how well a system was adjusted to its cultural context.

In an interview with Mario Wasserfaller (APA-Science), the expert called for the economic aspect to be driven out of the social, and for a stop to the commercialisation of all parts of society. This predominant form of economy was not natural, but rather a “socio-historical product”. This meant it could be “overcome and re-invented”.

The title of your lecture in Vienna is “How can we realise a holistic concept of prosperity for the many, not the few?” How would you summarise your core thesis in a few sentences?

The fundamental idea is to ask oneself how to return to the original goal of economics, which, coming from moral philosophy, searches for an answer to the question of how to assure the well-being of as many people as possible. The economy, as a means of organisation for resources, had an ethical purpose. The goal is to find this intended purpose again.

Felwine Sarr

Felwine Sarr (47) is a Senegalese social scientist, writer and musician. Since 2009 he has been Professor of Economics at the Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis (Senegal). His most famous book is Afrotopia in which he speaks out for a reinvention of Africa and a radical separation from the post-colonial past of the continent. In 2018, Sarr wrote a scientific report on the restitution of colonial art on behalf of French President Emmanuel Macron, together with the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy.

Photo: © Antoine Tempé

In your book Afrotopia, you criticise the hegemony of the economy in all areas of life. How could one break up this “autocracy” for the benefit of all?

First of all, the economic must be driven out of the social. Above all, it should be referred to the right place. Not all areas of society should be commercialised. We need joint, non-privatised resources for the use for and the usage by all. Finally, the value categories used in economy must not be used for all levels of human relations.

You work with alternative economic models, which take more cultural and psychological factors into account – such as relational economics. How could this work in practice – and do you have an example?

The main principle of material economy is exchange. This is based primarily in the creation of a relationship. And this is productive if it is based in trust. Without trust, there can be no functioning financial system. The most important framework of material economy is realational economy. All the so-called informal national economies in southern Italy, Benin and Mexico in Senegal are based primarily on this relational economy, which creates relationships that the material exchange is based on.

For this kind of model to work, many ideological and social borders have to be overcome. Do you think this is realistic in this day and age?

This is a process and a job which needs to be approached from the epistemological side first. In order to point it out and show that this form of economy which we are experiencing is a socio-historical product. It is not natural. It can be overcome and re-imagined. It has a certain lifespan. In this task, one must also move through the imaginary, and be in the position to imagine a living integrated economy, which has a positive effect on the environment and social relationships.

You repeatedly speak out against the uncritical acceptance of Western thinking in Africa. What in your view can the West (Europe) learn from Africa?

The West can and must learn not only from Africa, but also from the rest of the world. Knowledge, skills, and attitudes, a non-destructive relationship with nature, social abilities which make it possible to integrate differences, expanding the community, forms of reparations, etc. The archives of the world are rich in resources of knowledge and it would be a shame not to pay attention to these – considering that the only currently valid archive is the one that the West produced in the last five centuries.

Many people continue to flee from Africa to Europe for different reasons. What developments in Africa are still giving you hope for a better future?

85 percent of the migration flows of Africa take place on the continent. Africans migrate for the same reasons as everyone else, but mostly within the African continent. There are geopolitical, economic, and classically-symbolic explanations. For this reason, I do not want to cause panic. In addition, everyone should have the right to mobility. The challenges facing the continent are being approached in an international environment, which is unfavourable due to the asymmetries in the economic and political sectors. Greater global fairness would be helpful in this sector. But it (the continent) will not only overcome these challenges, but also function as a laboratory for new social, economic and political forms, providing more for humanity.

Since the publication of Afrotopia, almost four years have passed and the world has transformed in many ways. Would you change or update any of your themes today?

There is not much to change. The world has not gotten better and the theses discussed in Afrotopia are still current, I think.

First published on 18 November 2019 on APA Science.

This text is protected by copyright: © APA Science / Mario Wasserfaller. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Felwine Sarr. Photo: © Sophie Garcia / hanslucas.com

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