Faculty Spotlight: Alden Young on "Working at the intersection of politics and economics"
UCLA historian Alden Young. (Photo: Dan Komada/ Institute for Advanced Study.)

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

Faculty Spotlight: Alden Young on "Working at the intersection of politics and economics"

Alden Young, an historian whose research focuses on economic development and Africa, recently joined the faculty of the International Institute.

UCLA International Institute, October 16, 2020Alden Young, a political and economic historian of Africa with deep research interests in African economic development, Sudan and the Red Sea region, has joined UCLA with a joint appointment in the UCLA International Institute and the department of African American studies. He will teach his first course for the Institute’s international development studies program, “Colonialism and Development” (Intl Dev 140), in spring quarter 2021.

Young was previously a faculty member at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he taught history and directed the interdisciplinary Africana studies program from 2014 through 2019. He spent the past academic year (2019–20) as a social science fellow of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

A native of New Orleans, Young completed a B.A. at Columbia University, an M.A. at the London School of Economics and a Ph.D. at Princeton University. Following the completion of his doctorate, he spent two years as a Dean’s Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Early appreciation of decolonization

 Young had an eyewitness view of the transition of racial power from white to Black administrations in U.S. cities while growing up. Both his parents worked for the first black mayor of New Orleans, Ernest Nathan “Dutch” Morial (1978–1986), with his mother eventually becoming chair of the Port of New Orleans — the fourth-largest port in America.

“New Orleans was a majority Black city, but until the late 1970s it had never had an African American mayor before,” he comments. “My parents left the city in the 1990s, when we moved to Michigan, but there was already a sense that the project of [Black rule] hadn’t really worked.”

In Michigan, his mother became the Coleman Young Professor of Urban Studies at Wayne State University — a post named after the city’s first Black mayor, who served from 1974 to 1994 — and later, dean of its College of Urban Labor and Metropolitan Affairs.

“In Detroit, you also had this feeling that it had been several decades now of African American rule of a majority Black city, but that things were not going very well. There was a sense that it hadn’t lived up to the expected promise,” recounts Young.

Nelson Mandela voting in 1994 election. (Photo: <a href=”https://bit.ly/3dxQejX”>Paul Weinberg via Wikimedia Commons</a>). <a href=”http://goo.gl/BUqs”>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>. When he was in middle school, Young spent a year in South Africa because his mother was there on a research fellowship. “We were there in 1994, right when the first elections were taking place and Mandela was elected,” he says. “It was the moment of Africans taking over the country.”

 “There was this idea of a creating a racial democracy — a ‘rainbow nation’ — in South Africa, but the challenges of land reform, international investment and economic management would remain,” he observed. “Wealth was still largely in the hand of the whites, which created problems in terms of democratic possibilities.”

“Those experiences,” he comments, “really informed my thinking about decolonization: that it’s something that happens at home and abroad.” (See an article by Young that traces how urban development policies in Flint, Michigan and economic development policy in Sudan both created increasingly unequal societies.)


Becoming a scholar of economic history

Young was a college student in New York City when the 9/11 attacks occurred. After the U.S. launched a war against Iraq the following year, he decided to study abroad in the Middle East to get a different perspective on U.S. foreign policy.

He spent a year at the American University of Cairo and regularly attended political demonstrations against the Iraq War, for Palestine and on other issues. “It was a different type of student engagement; I had never been to a university that would just shut down for political reasons,” he says.

Young’s interest in Sudan began while he was in Cairo and was renewed at the London School of Economics. At the time, he comments, “The common way the Sudanese civil war was described was either as a racial or a religious conflict, but that didn’t make sense to me. I became interested in whether the conflict could be explained by looking at its political economy.”

“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. My overriding idea is that they can’t be separated and have to be considered together,” he explains.

Young was especially dissatisfied by African studies literature that suggested the economic policy problems of African leaders were attributable to their thinking politically, or vice-versa. Not only was economic history out of favor at the time, particular among Africanists, little empirical work had been done to gauge the impact of two generations of economic policy making in African countries.

By the time he was pursuing his doctorate at Princeton, Young’s research focus had shifted to economic policy making in Sudan in the period just after it achieved independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “So you are writing while pretending not to know that the civil war is going to happen,” he says.

“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,” he says, noting that the Sudanese state archives are extensive and less difficult to access than state archives in Egypt.


January 1, 1956. Sudan's flag raised at independence ceremony by Prime Minister Ismail al-Aazhari and opposition leader
Mohamed Ahmed al-Mahjoub. (Photo: Sudan Films Unit via Wikimedia Commons.) Public domain.


Post-independence Sudan and beyond

The book that emerged from his dissertation, "Transforming Sudan: Decolonization, Economic Development and State Formation" (Cambridge, 2017), is a multilayered examination of economic development policy making in Sudan in the late colonial and early post-colonial eras. The work analyzes how the economic development theories advocated by Sudanese policy makers helped lay the groundwork for the country’s eventual civil war. By promoting economic growth as the engine of state building, economic policy makers ignored considerations of regional and racial equity that later imperiled the new state.

Yet the scope of the book goes beyond mere economic history and considers how economic development theories impact nation building, often to the detriment of the latter. Young’s wide-ranging research on the era spanned the historical archives of the Sudanese ministries of the economy and finance (Arabic is his chief research language), World Bank country files on Sudan, the papers of the last British expert in Sudan and Arabic economic textbooks from the 1950s.

At present, Young is working on a new manuscript that traces Sudan’s economic history from the crisis of the 1960s to the present day. Provisionally entitled “Elite Retreat: Sudanese Political Economy in the Era of Dollar Hegemony,” the book examines the dreams of political economists who sought to remake the country’s economy after its initial failures, but found themselves unable to implement significant systemic change due to U.S. economic hegemony.

As with his previous book, the historian’s ongoing research is expansive, encompassing ministerial and international financial institution archives, the papers of private Sudanese businesses (invaluable, he says, for understanding how the Sudanese economy works in practice) and tracing the history of Sudanese elites who went from the government to distinguished careers in international organizations, often followed by their children.

Young is also engaged in two collaborative research projects at the moment: a study of post-partition conflicts in the Horn of Africa (e.g., Sudan-South Sudan and Ethiopia-Eritrea) with political scientist Michael Woldemariam, and a study of East African ideas of federation. Along with Nathalie Puetz of NYU Abu Dhabi, Young has also been awarded a research grant by the Social Science Research Council to conceptualize the Red Sea as a region of study.


Khartoum panaroma. (Photo: Chris from Falmouth, UK, via Wikimedia Commons, 2005). CC BY-SA 2.0.


Teaching decolonization, economic development and U.S. foreign policy

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. “I try to use comparative case studies to teach students that economic and politics are not separate,” he says.

“I want them to think about what goes into the policymaking process in developing countries and the constraints faced by their officials,” he continues, noting that the emphasis on corruption and neopatrimonialism in the development studies and political science literatures is misplaced. Finally, he adds, “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.

Rather than reflecting the racial thinking of Sudanese planners, “the recommendations that came to Sudan from the western economic profession were already racially coded,” he says. Economic development philosophies of the time viewed economies within in a rigid economic hierarchy, with the United States understood as the most developed country, African countries as the least developed and countries such as Turkey and certain Arab nations somewhere in between. The goal of postcolonial development specialists was to move the Sudanese economy closer to the developmental trajectory of the latter.


Sudan. Based on UN Map No. 4458, rev. 2, 2012.

“So it was easy for Sudanese planners to promote what they called the Arab districts of urban areas, or irrigated agriculture in the country’s north, as being more developed,” he says. Planners opted to direct more investments toward the north — the richer part of the country — in order to rapidly expand the economy, while ignoring other economic sectors as being “backwards” or “un-developable.”

These policies were solidly in line with prevailing theories of economic development. “A lot of these decisions are in the eye of the planner — economics is not as neutral a discipline as it appears,” observes Young.

“When we think about a state’s economic capacity, a lot of our thinking is racialized as it relates to where we put investments and what types of labor regimes we support,” he says. Racialized economic stratifications extend around the world. In Dubai, for instance, “everything is racialized according to your nationality — you get paid different rates depending on where you are from,” says Young, who has lived there. Citing the work of UCLA anthropologist Hannah Appel, he adds that racialized salary grades also prevail among international oil rigs off the west coast of Africa.

Within the U.S., the struggle for racial justice led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has made clear the reality of systemic racism in our own country. “I think that BLM has done a really good job at bringing to the fore the kind of structural inequalities that we took for granted when I first entered graduate school,” says Young.

However, he stresses, “genuine progress requires a conversation about structural inequalities, such as the incredible concentration of wealth in the United States. There is no way we can enact racial justice in this country without dealing with the question of the concentration of wealth.”

Published: Friday, October 16, 2020