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Interview: Jutta Bolt on her career as an economic historian

Date:09 August 2017
Jutta Bolt is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business.
Jutta Bolt is Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business.

In December 2016, Jutta Bolt received a Wallenberg Academy Fellowship by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation in Sweden. The fellowship is a prestigious grant of one million euros, comparable to a Vidi-Vici grant of the Dutch NWO. The grant meant that Bolt could spend half a year in Sweden at Lund University for her study into historical trends in the growth of Africa’s population. In April she packed up her family and moved to Lund. We spoke to her about how the research is going.

Q. How did you end up Associate Professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business?

A. I studied economics at the UG, and graduated in 2004. During my first year I became fascinated by the phenomenon long term economic growth. I wrote my master thesis at the ministry of Finance, on the real economic effects of debt cancellation in Africa. During this process I was invited to apply for a SOM PhD position which I did with a proposal that aimed to studying economic development in Africa from a long term perspective. This resulted in a PhD thesis in which I explored the long term effects of pre-colonial and colonial institutions on long term economic and institutional development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

After obtaining my PhD I broadened the scope of my research to understand long-term comparative economic development patterns more globally, although still with a special focus on Africa. I coordinate the Maddison Project, hosted at the University of Groningen, which is an international collaboration between scholars with the aim to continue the work of Angus Maddison in providing the academic community and the wider public with long-term series of GDP and population between the Roman times and the present. We are currently working on an update, and for this we have joined forces with the Penn World Tables. I’m now closely working together with Robert Inklaar from our faculty. It is actually the first time I team up with someone from the faculty for research, and it is a great collaboration which I enjoy very much.

Q. Tell us about your current research.

A. Most of my current research focusses on African Economic History. Together with colleagues from Lund University, I work on two large projects, financed by the Swedish Research Council and the Wallander Foundation. In the first we explore the roots of the currently high income inequality in Sub Saharan Africa. And in the second we study food security in Africa from a historical perspective. This collaboration with Lund University made me aware of the research funding opportunities in Sweden. I applied for and was awarded a Wallenberg Academy fellowship, a career program for young researches which provides long-term funding in order to develop an innovative line of research. It allows me to build a research team and work for the coming 5 years on long term population dynamics in Africa.

Understanding Africa’s long term population dynamics is in my mind one of the big unresolved puzzles in African Economic History. According to some estimates, Africa’s population will quadruple within 50-85 years. However, these predictions are only based on current trends; there is limited knowledge about population trends before the 1950s, and close to no knowledge prior to 1900 while demographic trends are truly long term phenomena. Within this project I will use so far unexplored missionary archives, to identify both trends in population, and factors that have had an historic influence on Africa’s population.

Q. What do you hope to achieve in your Wallenberg Academy Fellowship?

A. The main themes I hope to gain insights in with this project is why the demographic trend in Africa is different when compared to Asia and Latin America. When life expectancy increased in Asia and Latin America, this change was rapidly followed by a reduction in the number of births. Population growth thus slowed. Instead, in Africa, while life expectancy is also increasing, the number of children remains very high, and does not seem to decline in response to declining mortality as it did in other regions in the world. Has having many children always been the norm for this continent? Or could it be a reaction to colonialism, for example?

Additionally, I would like to increase our understanding of the determinants and mechanism of demographic change during the 19th and the early 20th century. The sources used for this project include descriptions of important developments from the preceding year such as famines, epidemics or droughts. And we can relate the timing of these exogenous incidences to fertility and mortality trends to see how population dynamics respond to shocks. This will lead to a broader understanding of changes in population dynamics, and helps us make more exact predictions of Africa’s future population patterns. Finally, the project contributes to a wider economic and epidemiological history of Africa.

Q. How do you feel about the move to Sweden?

A. After being at the faculty for so many years (just celebrated my 12,5 years of employment), I felt it was time for a change. So with the help of the faculty through agreeing to cluster my teaching in 2 blocks, I arranged a research stay at Lund University in Sweden. On the April 1 we packed our bags and drove to Sweden, where we are currently staying in an apartment from the university. Our children are enrolled at the international school here in Lund.

In April we moved to Lund and we are staying in an apartment from the university. The university has been extremely welcoming to me. They arranged an office, and I am included in everything that involves the staff, from seminars to outings. It is great to work in a large department (60 employees, including PhD students) all working on economic history or historical demography. There are many people working on related research fields, and it is very inspiring to talk about mutual interests. And as a visitor, I’m hardly involved in administration so I experience a great sense of freedom and new energy to work on my research.

The change of scenery both of work and of where we live has worked out very well for us. Off course, at the beginning it took time to get used to the new environment and the new rhythm. But now we are all settled in, it is very enjoyable and it surprises me how quickly we felt at home and live our lives 700 kilometers away from home.