Leonard Wantchekon grew up as a shy boy with humble aspirations to be a maths teacher in his hometown of Benin, in West Africa. However, his extraordinary life story and strong purpose to make Africa “a better place to live” led him to become a professor at Princeton and create the African School of Economics, the host of this year’s Africa Meeting of the Econometric Society.
“When I was a kid, I just wanted to become a maths teacher,” says Leonard. “I was so inspired by one of my high school maths algebra teacher, I wanted to be like him.” But life, as they say, had different plans for Leonard. An encounter with student activists in the 1970s led him to become a committed social and political activist in his home country, the Republic of Benin. But a year in prison and six months in a torture chamber in the city of Cotonou, where he was tortured for assembling protests against the country’s dictator Mathieu Kerekou, followed by a dramatic escape to Canada, changed the course of his life.
He describes his purpose in life to “help make Africa a better place to live, to make Africa better represented and to get Africans to have a voice in the future of their continent.” His time as a grassroots activist was a transformative period in his life, but it also helped bring some clarity.
“I started thinking [that] making the world a better place doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a politician or running for office. Social entrepreneurship, building a university or a think tank can work to do just that. When I escaped from prison in 1985 I discovered a new purpose, building an institution for learning and research.”
Leonard pursued a professorship in politics in economics at Princeton University in the US, but Benin was always at the front of his mind. In 2014, he opened the African School of Economics (ASE), a pan-African university headquartered in Abomey-Calavi in Benin, which was spun out of the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy (IERPE).
The primary purpose of ASE is to bring academic excellence in economics to Africa; its long-term objective is to educate the next generation of academics, policymakers and politicians. Leonard says, “We train people who will become policymakers tomorrow. Many of our students are working today as advisers, some might run for office tomorrow.”
Damase Sossou is just one of many success stories; the Benin-based statistician studied for a Masters degree in Public Economy and Applied Statistics at ASE’s predecessor, the IERPE, from 2006 to 2008. Since then, he has worked on designing and evaluating African development programmes and public policies, working with the likes of the World Bank and the Benin Prime Minister’s Office to advance the cause of “rigorous evaluation” in Africa. He helped build the West Africa Capacity Building and Impact Evaluation Program, an initiative to promote the concept of evaluation in eight governments.
ASE plays a role in promoting this modern, quantitative and qualitative analytical approach to economics. Beyond that, it can even contribute to economics knowledge worldwide by bringing the African experience and perspective, believes Leonard. The university has attracted student talent from as far afield as the US and Mexico.
Leonard has big plans for the university. ASE currently offers only graduate studies to around 123 students, but from September it will open an undergraduate programme. It also has partnerships with 17 institutions worldwide and is set to partner with more universities to create a graduate programme in the United States. Furthermore, ASE is exploring exchange programmes with universities in Europe, as well as campuses in other regions of Africa, such as East Africa.
Leonard says, “One of the reasons we want to do this is to make an important contribution to inclusion and diversity in academics worldwide. It’s important that young people who have experienced social and political and economic life in Africa can bring their unique perspective to economics, not just in Africa but elsewhere.”
Currently, Leonard lives in Princeton with his wife, Catherine Kossou, Associate Dean of Finance at Princeton University, while his two adult children live in Boston and New York. He spends about a quarter of the year in Africa. Now that his dream is coming to fruition, he plans on spending eight months of the year there. He says, “Given the plan to expand ASE worldwide, and for me to remain a global scholar in political economy and development economics, I will definitely be spending at least a trimester abroad.”
The boy from Benin is coming home.