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Smith Professor Makes Impact in Africa

Oct 15, 2018
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Lemma Senbet

An organization led by University of Maryland finance professor Lemma W. Senbet helped senior policymakers bring rigor and evidence to economic policymaking in Africa.

Senbet, the William E. Mayer Chair Professor of Finance at UMD’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, recently returned to Maryland Smith after a five-year term as executive director and CEO of the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC). The nonprofit organization is the largest and oldest economic research and training network in Africa.

Senbet took a leave from his teaching position to lead the consortium. During his African tenure, he visited and led missions to 25 countries. Consistent with the Pan-African mandate of AERC, he rotated the flagship biannual research capacity building activities around key countries in the sub-regions: Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Mauritius.

“The ultimate goal was to bring rigor and evidence to economic decisions,” Senbet said. “Informed policymaking should be viewed as one of the factors of production of economic development.  If you are misguided, you destroy value. But if you are guided by evidence, you create value.”

The consortium hired Senbet in 2012 following an extensive international search. He started his term as executive director and CEO in summer 2013. “This opportunity showed up when I was already thinking about getting more directly involved with Africa after years of policy advisory and outreach,” Senbet said.

Once he arrive at the consortium’s headquarters in Nairobi, Senbet worked quickly to build alliances for the sustainability of AERC. “Impact cannot be done in a vacuum,” he said. “We brought public, private and social sector leaders together in the same room during two-day forums.”

The goal was to build consensus and a sense of ownership among African partners. “We did not come with prescriptions,” Senbet said. “We came with policy options based on research and invited dialogue from inception of research to finish.”

During a convention in Zambia, Senbet also invited African central banks to become members of the consortium with enhanced voice and representation on the AERC Board — working with institutions such as the World Bank and Gates Foundation, and allied nations such as the United Kingdom and Sweden.

Senbet counts the Zambia meeting among his key accomplishments during his tenure. “We focused on the sustainability of AERC,” he said. “Now everything is stable.” The consortium's visibility also grew, and the Wharton Global Think Tank Index now ranks it among the top organizations globally for influencing policy.

Senbet, a U.S. citizen of Ethiopian origin, came to Maryland Smith in 1990 and was founding director of the school's Center for Financial Policy. Prior to his arrival at Maryland, Senbet held an endowed chair at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and taught as a visiting professor at Northwestern University, the University of California-Berkeley and New York University. He was also a distinguished research visitor at the London School of Economics.

His successor at the consortium is Kenya’s former central bank governor, Njuguna Ndung’u, who took over as executive director on Sept. 1, 2018.

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