Africa’s fastest-growing economies could offer a radical alternative to the West’s current reliance on national capitalism according to an academic who helped coin the term the ‘informal economy’.

The world economy is precarious in the extreme, but Africans have less to lose.

Keith Hart

Professor Keith Hart, a former Director of Cambridge’s Centre of African Studies, returns to the university tomorrow (Thursday) to deliver the annual Audrey Richards lecture – a showpiece of the Centre’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Hart will use the lecture to contend that conflict, poverty and extremism on the African continent should not divert attention from the long-standing strengths of the informal economy in Africa’s cities and the continent’s new embrace of the digital revolution in communications. Professor Hart will show how such social dynamics may have surprising lessons to give to the troubled market economy in the 21st century.

“In the present decade, seven out of the ten fastest-growing economies are African,” said Hart. “It was never the case that a national framework for development made sense in Africa and it makes even less sense today. The coming African revolution could leapfrog many of the obstacles in its path, but it will not do so by remaining tied to the national straitjacket worn by African societies since they won independence from colonial rule.

“The world economy is precarious in the extreme, but Africans have less to lose. Africa’s advantage in the current crisis is its weak attachment to the status quo.”

During the lecture, Hart will also consider the role played by free trade and protection in the revolutions that made modern France, the United States, Italy and Germany, as well as examining the organization of international trade in Southern Africa and reviewing the prospect for greater integration of trade regimes on the continent as a whole.

Professor Hart’s original research in Ghana in the 1970s is renowned for coining the notion of the informal economy. It has been widely applied to account for economic activities that are not recorded by conventional measurements such as the gross domestic product. He has more recently published influential studies on how new forms of money may entail more emancipatory possibilities than has been the case in capitalism’s historical forms.

Professor Hart is currently the co-director of the Human Economy Programme in Pretoria University and Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His lecture is given as the Audrey Richards Annual Lecture in African Studies. It pays tribute to Richards (1889-1984), a Cambridge social anthropologist, who founded the Centre of African Studies in 1965. 

Hart’s lecture today inaugurates the Centre’s 50th anniversary events that will highlight half a century of excellence in African Studies at the University of Cambridge. The University’s new Africa initiative builds on this legacy of African Studies.

The lecture, Waiting for Emancipation: The Prospects for Liberal Revolution and a Human Economy in Africa, takes place in room SG1 & SG2 in the Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, at 5pm Thursday. All are welcome to attend.

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