Alex Dobyan giving course

The African School of Economics (ASE) is in partnership with the University of Princeton in the USA. As part of this partnership the ASE receives Princeton students on its campus of Abomey-Calavi (Benin), through the Princeton in Africa Fellowship program. Alex Dobyan is one of those students that has spent one year here. At the end of his stay in Benin, we approached him to tell us more about his experience working on the ASE campus.

Can you introduce yourself, please?

            My name is Alex Dobyan, and I have been working at ASE as a Princeton-in-Africa Fellow for the past year. The Princeton-in-Africa fellowship sponsors recent graduates from U.S. universities to work at organizations in Africa for one year.

How was your stay in Benin?

           To be honest, it was quite challenging, but also life-changing. I’ve really appreciated learning about the history, culture, economy, and so on of Benin. I also feel like I’ve built a good relationship with many of the students at ASE, which has been great for me. It’s made me feel much more comfortable than I did at the beginning of my stay.

Which other countries have you been to in Africa?

Before coming I had visited Rwanda and Morocco. Since moving to Benin, I’ve visited Togo, Ghana, Tanzania, and Côte d’Ivoire.

How does the overall environment in Benin compare to those countries?

            There are definitely cultural differences – in general, East Africa is more laid-back and orderly, while West Africa is more animated and chaotic. I do prefer most other cities I’ve visited like Abidjan, Kigali and Dar es Salaam to Cotonou; Cotonou is just too polluted, and driving feels really dangerous with all the zemidjans. The great advantage that Benin has is the level of political stability and freedom, and you can tell that Beninese people are really engaged and willing to share their opinions.

What has been your involvement in ASE activities?

            My two main roles have been working on research with Professor David Gbaguidi, and teaching English, GRE and TOEFL classes for our students. I’ve also worked with the faculty to develop proposals for scholarship and research grants.

What is your overall appreciation of the school's activities, academic and non-academic?

            It’s been great to be a part of the research that comes from ASE, which is both interesting and high quality. There are a number of really promising students here too, and I hope they will go far. I think it’s really interesting to see the visiting professors and scholars that come to ASE, and I hope that in the future ASE can bring in more from all over Africa, not just Benin or nearby countries.

            Regarding the non-academic activities – it seems like the students here spend so much time studying that they don’t have time for much else! I know there are some initiatives to bring students together to play football or make music but I haven’t really participated.

What advice can you give to ASE students?

            First of all, you have to work really hard. If you’re going to the international job market or abroad for study after ASE, you have to work much harder than your competitors to prove that your CV from Benin is just as good as someone from a Western country. Second, you have to take risks and have an open mind. Lots of students say that there are few opportunities in Benin or other Francophone West African countries, and everyone applies for the same jobs. Find ways to either create your own opportunities or be willing to gain experience somewhere new, especially in a new part of Africa that you can use later in your career to gain an advantage.

Thank you for your responses and knowledgeable advice.

Video workshop 1

Video workshops are another big initiative run and coordinated by ASE students. These are weekly sessions whose objectives are to enhance understanding of prominent research papers, to devise alternative ways of understanding renowned scientists presenting their papers. For the moment, the video workshops are in their fourth edition.

During the last three sessions, students worked on papers written by authors such as Nathan Nunn, Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Professor Leonard Wantchekon. Students also enjoyed watching extracts of videos presenting these papers.

The last workshop, which took place on June, 15th, focused on a paper entitled “Contract Theory” written by Nobel prize-winning authors, Oliver HART and Bengt HOLMSTRÖM. Hart’s presentation was basically the application of their theory. His application was rooted in the coal mining sector. The video highlights the real life application of contract theory through a relationship between the coal mine and power plant.

Students welcomed the presentation with enthusiasm. Audience members had numerous comments and questions afterwards.

2017 06 19 Roland Pongou 1 3

Dr. Roland Pongou is an affiliate faculty of the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy (IERPE) since September 2013. He is involved in a number of activities within the African School of Economics. He holds a Master and a PhD in Economics, both from Brown University. He also holds degrees in Mathematics and Demography. He is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Ottawa, the head of Research and Evaluation at the Global Economic Institute for Africa, and a Researcher at Development Research Strategies. His research focuses on the analysis of how formal and informal institutions determine demographic and economic outcomes. Some of the topics covered by his research include the formation of “infidelity networks” and their implications for HIV/AIDS spread, human capital accumulation, the impacts of the slave trade and missionary activity in Africa, and the effect of social media on political cycles and instability. As an affiliate faculty of IERPE, he has worked on the long-term impacts of colonial railways in Nigeria. He is also using household data on maternal and child health and aggreagate data on institutions and longevity to investigate the historical and institutional roots of demographic transition in African countries.

Dr Janis Hilaricus

Dr. Janis Hilaricus is Associate Professor in Management at the University of the Antilles in Martinique, and has been a visiting professor at ASE since 2015. Several years ago she had the opportunity to meet ASE President Léonard Wantchekon in Martinique, who invited her to teach at ASE. Dr. Hilaricus accepted the offer, seeing it as a great professional opportunity. During this visit, she taught students courses in Marketing and Qualitative Data Analysis. She thinks ASE is a wonderful opportunity for students because all coursework is in English, and she advises to ASE students to have big dreams and not to limit themselves – there is a chance that their dreams become true.

This is Dr. Hilaricus’ third visit to Benin to teach at ASE, and she is joined by Dr. Maximilian Hasler, her husband and a fellow professor at the University of the Antilles. She has already had opportunity to visit several Beninese cities, including Abomey and Ouidah. She finds that Benin has a very interesting culture, and has learned a lot about the history of the Dahomean monarchy, such as the life of King Behanzin, the last independent ruler of Abomey, who was exiled to Martinique at the end of his life. Many ASE students hope that Dr. Hilaricus returns to teach further courses, and the connection continues between Benin and Martinique.

Why did you choose Professor João Santos Silva for the next Career Building International Chats (CABICH) Ones-to-one session?

Professor Santos Silva is a major figure in his areas of research. I worked on some of his articles and used his packages in Stata for my Master’s thesis. My choosing him is mainly due to the fact that he has done intensive quantitative econometrics analysis, which is the root of many courses at ASE. Moreover, his advice as a professor will be an exceptional help for ASE students academically as well as in professional career building.  

How can ASE students benefit from participating in this session?

Participating in this session is a privilege for each ASE student. Firstly, because we are going to learn more through each other’s questions. Secondly, participating in this session could lead to a great opportunity for a PhD or research projects for students Professor Santos Silva might notice through interesting questions during the session.

We noticed that you often invite important persons to CABICH chats. What do you do to convince those people?

I think inviting someone to CABICH is all about convincing them through the first email. It's true that at the beginning it was difficult, because it was something I’d never done or heard about before. It just came to my mind, I started working on it and it worked out. At the very beginning, many people turned down my invitations. But through perseverance, I know more about convincing people than before.  Can you imagine that Dr. Santos Silva was not a WhatsApp user before, but he has asked his department to provide him with a smartphone just for participating in the session with ASE students?  Also, ASE is doing more to make it easy to convince people. I applaud all the faculty, especially Professor Leonard Wantchekon. He is doing wonderful work to build ASE's reputation. All my gratitude to him, and to students who have helped at certain times to put me in touch with some of their contacts to invite them onto the CABICH series.

Your final word?

My final word is that everybody should chip in during the chat with good questions. Students can ask questions about various economic works, but especially Dr. Santos Silva’s “The Log of Gravity”.  I encourage our students to carefully read at least the abstract and the introduction of the paper to get ready. I also encourage all the faculty to warmly welcome Santos that day to thank him for accepting the invitation to interact with ASE students.