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Converting Pessimism into Hope

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By Molly Wahlberg
Posted: March 13

Ben Weiss

Ben Weiss on the Zimbabwe bridge

It's not surprising that Ben Weiss was the fall 2011 recipient for the Senate of College Councils Undergraduate Research Grant. Since arriving at The University of Texas from New York in August of 2009 as a freshman, Weiss has been active as both an academic and an activist. He is a triple major in government, history, and the self-created major of African Conflict and Development Studies. Focusing on genocide, HIV/AIDS and economic development in Africa, Weiss aspires to help developing countries become more sustainable and economically prosperous.

To help future thought leaders such as Weiss carry out their research, the Senate of College Councils and the School of Undergraduate Studies created a $1,000 Undergraduate Research Grant. With the grant, Weiss was able to take his research into Zambia, where he examined its rising negotiating power and foreign investment.   

Weiss has already presented twice at the university’s annual Africa Conference, and his paper on HIV/AIDS relief dependency was selected for publication in the volume, "African Political Economy: the way forward for 21st century development." He credits his faculty adviser Toyin Falola, the Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor in History, with much of his academic accomplishments. He also attributes his success to his thesis advisor Catherine Boone, professor of government, who supervised his research in Zambia.

We sat down with Weiss to learn more about his Zambia research experience, his interest in economic development, and how he discovered some surprising findings about the country's economic outlook.

How did Zambia's debt crisis come about? 

Post 1975, Zambia's economic history can be characterized by a large financial contraction that resulted from the global recession after the 1973 energy crisis. To forestall the effects of this global market crash, Zambia borrowed heavily and rapidly, expanding the country's national debt. By 1983, the country's total external debt was about $3 billion, much of it owed to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Post-independence, Zambia spent much of the Cold War period enacting multiple national development plans to dig the country out of its mounting economic turmoil, but most only exacerbated the problem.

How has Zambia's economy progressed since the 1973 energy crisis?

Although many Zambian economic troubles continue into the post-Cold War era from 1992 to the present, there have been marked increases

Ben Weiss

Aerial footage of Zambia's iconic Victoria Falls, shot by Ben Weiss from a helicopter

in many sectors, and development seems to be on the rise. Much of this seems to be due to the advent of actors other than the World Bank and IMF. From telecommunications to fuel, mining and transport, many new countries and international financial institutions have started investing in Zambian industries in the last two decades. What remains to be seen is whether Zambia has gained more authority to negotiate with these actors in the post-Cold War era than it had when the majority of financial interactions were with the World Bank and IMF during the Cold War.

With the rise in Zambian economic activity and the move toward urbanization, is the country becoming more economically independent?

From my initial research, I determined that Zambia was either still dominated by the whims of investors and lenders in some sectors or that the evidence found was insufficient to indicate an improvement. However, after actually stepping out of the library and traveling to Zambia, I have seen several indications that Zambia's ability to dictate certain terms to investors has increased in the past 20 years. This evidence is by no means conclusive, but it is enough to bring hope to my previous pessimism.

What sparked your interest in Zambia's political economy?

I began my research about a year ago while taking a class on African politics at The University of Texas at Austin under the guidance of Catherine Boone. In the past six months, I have detailed my research in a paper that addresses my more specific area of study in Zambia as well as my conclusions based on research in libraries and on the Internet. I focused on whether the Zambian government has been able to gain negotiating power in investment and foreign aid proceedings due to the increase in international actors in Zambian economics since the Cold War's end. I chose to examine the presence of competition to invest and give aid between the World Bank and China, as they are two major international actors in Zambia. With this as my framework, I used case studies in the mining, telecommunications, health and banking sectors to look for the presence of competition to invest or give foreign aid.

What made you decide to conduct fieldwork in Zambia?

I decided that my research would be incomplete without actually traveling to Zambia to reflect first-hand on my conclusions. Thanks in part to the generous funding of the Senate of College Councils, I was able to make this a reality. In spending about a month in Zambia, I came to realize that my conclusions were not necessarily wrong, but that the premises they were based upon were too limiting. I have come to understand that had I established different parameters, I would have reached a much more cautiously optimistic deduction. The international actors at play in Zambia are new enough that they will not appear in bulk or detail in library and archival records. Since coming to Lusaka, it has become clear that the competition I am looking for is a result of a plethora of actors, rather than just the World Bank and China.

During the research phase, did you come across any surprising findings?

Only in traveling to this country could I have realized how truly diverse the number of investors in Zambia are. Several of these are older players like the World Bank, IMF and China who have made appearances since the 1970s and earlier. However, there are now too many new players to list. A report published in 2011 called "Investing in Zambia" details a 686.1 percent increase in foreign direct investment between 2000 and 2009, which I believe can be attributed greatly to the increase in actors over the past two decades. This reality represents a lot of hope for the country. Zambia now has options, and with options come power. The country has come a long way in a short time, and it still has a long way to go. But if being in this nation has taught me one thing, it is that Zambia is certainly starting to lay the groundwork for significant progress.

The deadline to apply for the Spring 2012 Undergraduate Research Grant is Friday, March 23, by 5 p.m. Please submit your application (sealed in a manila envelope) in person to Becky Carreon in the Senate of College Councils' office located in SAC 2.102.

 Eligible applicants include students assisting a faculty member with a research project, as well as students conducting independent or partnered research. Applicants must be enrolled for 12 hours of coursework at The University of Texas at Austin and be considered an undergraduate student by the Office of the Registrar. The winner will receive a $1,000 prize from the Senate of College Councils to be used toward research. For more details, visit this website. http://utsenate.org/urg/

Please contact Ryan Hirsch at ryan.hirsch@utexas.eduwith any questions regarding the application.