Gerardo Serra, 2013-14 HOPE Center Fellow

It’s the unexpected that often inspires a research program.

For Gerardo Serra, a PhD student at LSE working on the history of development economics, statistics, and planning in sub-Saharan Africa, the unexpected came as he was browsing through one of the archival collections in the Economists’ Papers Project at Duke. There, in the papers of an Italian economist named Bruno Foà, was a box labeled “Mission to Somalia.”

“As soon as I saw it, I just knew I had to look in it,” Gerardo says. He was not disappointed. Little has been written on the experiences of Italian economists doing field work in the former African colonies; the documents in the papers open up the subject to historical investigation.

Also in the archives are letters by Foà in which he expresses a desire to write an autobiography. He muses melancholically that nobody cares about him anymore because he’s just an old economist.

“That comment struck me and made me realize that history is in part about rescuing people from oblivion. It is about caring about fragments and pieces, and putting them together into an organic whole” Gerardo says.

For Gerardo, an Italian by birth but who has been living for the past few years in London and now in the United States, Foa’s writings are a connection to home. Foa, who was Jewish, left Italy in 1938 to escape the Fascist government. “His description of leaving Italy, of the tiny train station and leaving the kind of landscape I am so familiar with, with its olive trees and hills, resonated with me,” Gerardo says.

There have been other discoveries as well. “What I didn’t expect was what I’d find in the library here,” Gerardo says. For instance, he came across, of all things, the PhD thesis of a US economist who worked in Ghana in the 1960s.

Ghana is particularly relevant in Gerardo’s research. His PhD thesis is about the relationship between economics, statistics, state formation, and economic policy in Ghana from 1928 until 1966. He wants to understand in detail how statistical offices and planning commissions worked, what was the cognitive basis of government action, and what Western economic ideas meant to them and how those ideas interacted with local conditions and shaped not only economic policy, but also political imagination more broadly.

“Economics and statistics played a direct role in state building in Africa,” Gerardo explains. “In the West, we take the state for granted, but in Africa, it’s not so obvious.”

Gerardo hopes to show how the political use of the expertise of economists and statisticians evolved, from “fact finders” in the 1920s to “social engineers” in the 1960s. Following independence from Britain and Ghana’s turn to socialism in the early 1960s, “political economy became a powerful tool to create the ideal citizen of what had become, in fact, a one-party state.” 

Last year, Gerardo spent five months living in Ghana and working in the national archives there.

Although he has been at the Center for only a short time, he has learned a lot from interacting with the other fellows in his office and with the HOPE Center faculty.

“I’m struck by the humility of the people at the Center. The very historians who have done so much to construct the historiography of economics: you can get to them just by knocking on their door. It’s amazing.”

Gerardo will return to LSE at the end of 2013 to finish writing his dissertation.

--Paul Dudenhefer