Leonard Wantchekon’s education began as a young child in his home village of Zagnanado, in the West African nation of Benin, where elementary school classes gave way to long soccer games and evenings of storytelling by aunts and uncles whose tales became informal history courses.
He left village life behind in a search for academic success that took him to the nation’s most populous city, Cotonou, to the National University of Benin to study mathematics, and eventually to North America and Princeton.
During his student years in Benin, Wantchekon became a pro-democracy activist. Planning meetings became his classes, fellow activists his classmates and acts of protest his final exams. Through the 1970s and ’80s he rose to a prominent place in the opposition that helped hasten the end of the oppressive regime of Mathieu Kérékou.
“All the time I tried to be two different persons in one,” Wantchekon said. “On the one hand I wanted to be the next big thing in academics in Africa. I wanted to be a top mathematician and was very ambitious, driven and enthusiastic. … At the same time, I was an equally ambitious pro-democracy activist. I was at the center of a social movement that was pushing for major political reforms in Benin.”
His twin paths of academic study and political activism frequently diverged and intersected until a morning in December 1986, when he escaped across the border into Nigeria following 18 months of incarceration as a political prisoner and three months on the run from authorities.
“It was — or rather, I was determined to make this — the dividing line between my past and my future,” Wantchekon wrote about that moment in his autobiography Rêver à contre-courant (Dreaming Against the Grain), published in French by L’Harmattan in 2012.
A quarter-century after leaving his home country, Wantchekon has built upon his remarkable past to forge an academic career focused on studying — and working to shape — governance and institutions in Africa.
He has emerged as one of the rare political scientists who works directly with politicians, using their campaigns as laboratories to study how best to engage voters on policies. He also studies how the benefits of education spread through a society, using his home village as one of the study sites. And he’s hard at work on his most ambitious project, establishing a graduate school and center for social science research in Benin.
“We shouldn’t underestimate how crucial it is that ideas that will help Africa develop have to come mostly from Africa and have to involve more Africans,” said Wantchekon, who joined the Princeton faculty in 2011 as a professor of politics and associate faculty member in the economics department. “This, of course, cannot happen overnight. So we need to set up great institutions of higher education with the hope that, over time, we develop enough talent to make a difference.”
Political campaign as laboratory
In Benin, Wantchekon is experimenting with ways to engage voters using the nation itself as a laboratory. “As a researcher and someone who has political experience, I’m interested in the following question: How can a candidate best communicate a policy platform to the electorate that is both good for the country and can help the candidate win?” Wantchekon said.
With the cooperation of the candidates and funding from the International Development Research Council of Canada (IDRC), he is evaluating the effectiveness of two campaign techniques: town-hall meetings focused on issues versus the usual large and costly rallies that emphasize financial incentives for voters.
Wantchekon found that town-hall meetings are more effective than rallies both in terms of getting people to turn out to vote and getting them to vote for the candidate. “Not only are the people more informed,” he said, “but those who attend share what they have learned with others.” Some of the project results were published in the October 2013 issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. He completed a similar experiment in the Philippines earlier this year with support from Princeton’s Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, and is awaiting the results.
His next project is to explore the conditions under which holding primary elections within political parties, as is done in the United States, could encourage candidates to develop more thorough expertise on policy areas. “Competition between two candidates from the same party, running on the same platform, I think will encourage candidates to go deeper into the issues with the voters,” Wantchekon said.
Peter Buisseret, a Ph.D. student studying comparative politics, is collaborating with Wantchekon on this work. “Leonard is enormously enthusiastic about the projects we work on together, and also my own work,” Buisseret said. “As a co-author, he is truly collaborative: I feel very much an equal in the projects we work on, but at the same time I recognize how much intellectual and professional benefit I get from working with someone with his experience and knowledge.”
Wantchekon said his experience in graduate school shapes the way he relates to students. After fleeing Benin, he found his way to Canada, where he earned master’s degrees in economics from Laval University and the University of British Columbia.
In 1992, he went to Northwestern University, where he earned his doctorate in economics. But the transition to the American academic system — and an environment where only English was spoken — was difficult. He overcame the challenges, though, and secured a position as an assistant professor of political science at Yale University and later on the faculty of New York University.
Far-reaching benefits of education
Wantchekon’s experiences spurred him to explore how education has benefited people within villages and across generations in Benin, a country that experienced Western colonization. When Benin, then known as Dahomey, was colonized in 1895 by France, Catholic missionaries began setting up schools throughout the region. The missionaries’ goal was religious conversion, Wantchekon said, while the colonial government aimed to train local people to work as translators, nurses, accountants and security guards.
Using colonial archives, school rosters and oral histories, and with financial support from IDRC, Wantchekon identified 240 of the first students to attend school in the early 1900s at four sites in Benin. He noted that these students were not smarter or wealthier than the average Benin child but merely were fortunate to live near a school, so they can be thought of as randomly selected and representative of the population. He compared each group of 60 students to a representative sample of children from a village that lacked a school.
He found that the educated individuals experienced better incomes and living conditions. For example, only 14 percent of the educated students become farmers, whereas farming was the primary occupation among the uneducated (about 80 percent). He also found that the educated were more likely to have electricity and running water in their homes and to own a bicycle, motorcycle or car.
Wantchekon also found lasting effects that went beyond the individuals who received education. The children of the first students exhibited better outcomes, as might be expected, but what is particularly striking, Wantchekon said, is that the children of uneducated parents living in villages with schools did markedly better than descendants of uneducated parents in villages without schools.
“What I draw from this is the importance of aspiration,” he said. “When you see someone who makes it, he or she is your reference point, and you want to make it too. This is a very important finding for education policy. It is how you use the success of a few to encourage the success of many.”
Wantchekon said his findings resonate with his own experience. His mother, who was mostly uneducated, would show him pictures of his successful and educated uncle and urge her children to be like him. Of the children he went to school with in the village of Zagnanado, 10 others have earned Ph.D.s. “Entire villages in Benin have been completely transformed by education,” he said.
With a small team of students sponsored by Princeton’s Health Grand Challenge program, Wantchekon is now exploring whether the beneficial effects of education have continued to spread to the grandchildren of Benin’s first students in an era of increased competition for jobs.
Returning to Benin
Wantchekon isn’t just studying Africa’s past and present. He’s working to shape its future as founder of the African School of Economics (ASE), which is set to open in Benin in fall 2014. The goal of the ASE, Wantchekon said, is to create a center of excellence for social science research in Africa.
The school, which has its roots in a research institute Wantchekon established in Benin in 2004, has received funding from the Women for Africa Foundation and SES, a satellite company based in Luxembourg, and is scheduled to open with about 300 master’s degree students.
“I’ve always thought that the way to promote social science research in Africa is to have a better African representation in social science research
in Africa,” Wantchekon said. “We need to solve development problems on the continent through original thinking and indigenous generation of knowledge.”
The ASE will bring together students and faculty from Africa and beyond with an academic focus on informing social science within the context and history of Africa. Classes will be taught in English. The school’s structure and curriculum have been established. The design of the school, to be based near the city of Cotonou, is nearing completion.
The ASE is also pursuing academic partnerships with universities around the world that he hopes will lead to a free flow of students, faculty and ideas. Earlier this year, Princeton announced a partnership involving Wantchekon and the University of São Paulo, the Center for Teaching and Research in Economics in Mexico, and the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy in Benin. As part of this program, ASE hosted a summer school and conference involving 12 graduate students from Princeton and 10 from African universities.
“One of the things the University is very excited about in terms of this initiative is the opportunity our faculty will have to collaborate with scholars in Western Africa and possibly in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa later,” said Diana Davies, vice provost for international initiatives. “Also, this allows us to engage in the activity of capacity building and helping to build up the next generation of scholars in Africa, which is something that’s very important to us.”
“Africa is part of the University’s larger internationalization effort,” said Jeremy Adelman, Princeton’s Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilization and Culture, professor of history and director of the University’s Council for International Teaching and Research. “But the strategy has to be adapted to Africa. Figuring out how it’s going to work in Africa requires working with Africans.”
Wantchekon knows that much work remains to reach his goals for the ASE. “I am really determined to get there,” he said. “ASE enables me to nourish big ambitions and dreams for Africa while being among the best academics in America.”
By Michael Hotchkiss