Alden Young has long been dissatisfied with how African studies and development literature view economic policy in Africa. A political and economic historian with a deep research interests in Sudan, Africa and the Middle East, Young recently joined UCLA after teaching at Drexel University for five years.

“One of the big challenges I had going into graduate school was the way a lot of the literature tried to separate politics and economics, as if they were two separate concerns,” Young said. “My overriding idea is that they can’t be separated and have to be considered together.”

Young’s doctoral research focused on economic policy in Sudan in the period just after the country achieved independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the time, he said, little empirical work had been done to gauge the impact of two generations of economic policy making in African countries.

“I was a part of a wave of scholars who returned to the archives in Khartoum after a period of Islamic rule and the country’s fall-out with the West,” Young said.

The book that emerged from his dissertation, “Transforming Sudan: Decolonization, Economic Development and State Formation” (Cambridge, 2017), is a multilayered examination of how the economic development theories advocated by Sudanese policymakers in the post-independence period helped lay the groundwork for the country’s eventual civil war. By promoting economic growth as the engine of state building, those responsible for crafting policies ignored considerations of regional and racial equity that later imperiled the new state.

As a teacher, Young uses Sudan as a case study of what he considers a global process of decolonization in which the space for democratic and economic change is limited by established systems of power. He views decolonization as a process that happens at home and abroad — an intellectual orientation derived in part from having been an eyewitness to the transition of racial power from white to Black administrations in U.S. cities and in South Africa.

“I want [students] to think about what goes into the policymaking process in developing countries and the constraints faced by their officials,” said Young, noting that the emphasis on corruption and neopatrimonialism in the development studies and political science literatures is misplaced. “I try to help them understand that what we see as ‘developed’ is racially coded.”

One the crueler ironies of post-colonial history, Young observes, was that economic models — unlike the previous anthropological models employed by colonial powers — appealed to local elites because they offered a path toward advancement.

“The idea was, if these countries could transform, they could advance — there was a way forward,” he said.

Read the full story on the UCLA International Institute website.