Mandela Economic Scholars Program provides skilled economists for South Africa's public and private sectors. Newly minted economists launch alumni association to foster debate on economic issues.
When Apartheid ended in 1994 few South Africans of color had economics degrees. The shortage of black economists prompted the U.S. and South African governments to create the Mandela Economic Scholars Program (MESP) in 1996 to train economics professionals from the country's majority population. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and managed by Nathan Associates, the MESP has filled the gap with 117 South African men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds who are competently moving economic analysis and reform forward in the country. More than 60 MESP scholars have taken jobs in various government departments, from the Office of the President to the Department of Trade and Industry to the Department of Transport.
Initially trained exclusively at U.S. institutions, the scholars now study at three South African universities, reflecting the program's shift in 2001 to South Africa to upgrade the curricula at South African universities and to train more economists from disadvantaged backgrounds. Specialized fields of economics such as labor, health, trade and regulation, and resource and environmental economics have been strengthened in South Africa's universities as a result of this shift.
Eighty MESP scholars, the largest gathering of black economists in South Africa's history, met in Johannesburg in September to launch the Mandela Economic Scholars Alumni Association. In addition to being a resource for the scholars, the alumni association will foster debate on important economic issues facing South Africa. The group drafted a constitution and plans to encourage research in its own ranks and to improve the attractiveness of advanced economics training throughout the country. Addressing the alumni association dinner, South Africa's Deputy Minister of Finance, Mandisi Mpahlwa, praised the MESP, "This programme serves as an example of the important role that social investment can play in enhancing human capital. . . the enormous talent present here encourages me that we have put in place a strong foundation to ensure [South Africa] a prosperous future."
Lulu Dikweni, an economist in the Department of Transport who completed her master's degree at Brandeis University in the United States, summed up the scholars' sentiment, noting "The MESP scholarship has provided an invaluable opportunity for us in terms of training in the field of economics, [in terms of] personal growth and introducing us to fellow MESP scholars who are a great resource. ...We're looking forward to making a real difference in South Africa as well as [in] the economics profession. . .¨.