Professor Thandika Mkandawire

Professor Thandika Mkandawire

ASA UK Lasting Legacy Award 2022


Professor Thandika Mkandawire was posthumously recognized for his remarkable contribution to our understanding of Africa when the inaugural ASA UK Lasting Legacy Award was conferred on him on Sunday 4 September 2022 as part of the annual meeting held in Liverpool that year. This page is designed to highlight Professor Mkandawire’s immense contribution, and to share his insights with new generations of researchers.




Professor Thandika Mkandawire Award Citation


The late Thandika Mkandawire is a fitting recipient of the inaugural ASA UK Lasting Legacy Award. A pioneering scholar, he was a brilliant writer and one of the most important institution builders of his generation, who fought tirelessly for a greater commitment to analytical rigour and progressive scholarship within the field of African political economy. His influence lives on daily, both among those who research Africa and within a much broader range of disciplines and debates within economics and international development: he truly was a global scholar.


Thandika was an innovative and committed institution-builder, focused on advancing the African-led study of African politics and development. Born in Zimbabwe and raised in Zambia and Malawi during the colonial period, and studying in the United States and Sweden during the era of civil rights struggles and mobilization for a new world order, Thandika had a deep and multifaceted understanding of both colonialism and political vision that motivated a strong sense of justice and development aspiration for Africa. He participated in the founding of the Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies (ZIDS) and headed it from 1982 to 1985.  He was also one of the founding members and a key dynamic force behind the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) in Dakar, Senegal. Thandika served as CODESRIA’s Executive Secretary from 1986 to 1996, using his tenure to strengthen African universities that were grappling with the effects of neoliberal restructuring and austerity. From 1998 to 2009, he worked from within the United Nations system as Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), where he was known for his innovative perspectives on contemporary development issues, particularly his influential Transformative Social Policy perspective. In the last decade of his life, Thandika became the first Chair of African Development at the LSE, infusing it with his distinctive combination of deep insight, human warmth, sharp wit, and intellectual power, leaving the LSE with extremely big shoes to fill.


Over the course of his long career, Thandika created a broad corpus of world leading scholarship on a variety of topics including work on African economic history and development theory, social policy and social democracy, neoliberalism and structural adjustment, and penetrating analysis of African politics and political economy. His work, such as the masterful ‘Thinking about developmental states in Africa’, was often ground-breaking. He wrote concisely and clearly, ruthlessly dismembering lazy ideas, and dispelling mistaken assumptions with considerable grace. Having started his career as a journalist, Thandika’s writing is unusually lively and free of academic jargon, and exudes a richness of experience and detailed historical knowledge. In the words of Yusuf Bangura, Thandika’s influential volumes co-edited with Charles Soludo, Our Continent, Our Future (1999), African Voices on Structural Adjustment (2003), demonstrated “that African countries were not the perennial failed states that the multilateral financial agencies and Africanist political scientists imagined them to be” while foregrounding African voices in order to show that the prescription of economic “shock therapy” for African economies rested on flawed foundations. So prolific was his writing, that when CODESRIA went to compile a complete bibliography of his work it stretched to a remarkable 12 pages of important and frequently seminal contributions.


Thandika was a seminal figure in conversations about Africa, with a nuanced understanding of the role of the African states.  A Malawian by birth, he also became a Swedish citizen owing to a long period of political exile. As a participant in Malawi’s independence struggle, a refugee, and an advocate of the developmental power of the state, Thandika had a complex understanding of the damage done by oppressive policy programmes, and highlighted the need for policy space and experimentation for African states to chart their own development path. From Sweden, he learned of the crucial role that social policy could play in enabling economic growth and development for late developers. His work at UNRISD on Transformative Social Policy demonstrated that social welfare and public investment were not just about redistribution and poverty reduction but also about productivity, ultimately making people – and therefore, social democracy – the basis of capital accumulation within the economy. At a time when technology and high unemployment are focusing attention on social protection and  basic income grants, Thandika’s ideas offer a valuable critique of conventional minimalist social protection models.


Thandika’s dual identity also made him a staunch opponent of Afro-exceptionalism. His writing demonstrated that African countries were not dysfunctional, but rather that mainstream theory was itself dysfunctional if it could not explain African realities through engagement with the varied histories and development trajectories across the continent. Thandika was a global intellectual who wanted African experiences to be put into conversation with the rest of the world.  Given his tireless and passionate commitment to African development scholarship, and his remarkable contribution to key institutions both in Africa and on the international stage, news of his death was met with an outpouring of whole-hearted and powerful statements from politicians, scholars, journalists and members of civil society, including the head of CODESRIA, and the former heads of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the Nordic Africa Institute. He stood out as a scholar who was as loved and respected by international development agencies as he was by critical and politically engaged African scholars.


As well as a wonderful scholar, Thandika was a valued mentor. Always generous and patient with younger scholars who were still trying to make sense of the world, his legacy lives on through their work as well as his own. Despite knowing so much himself, Thandika always wanted younger people to make up their own minds on their own terms. He was refreshingly low-key, treating everyone he met with respect regardless of age and institutional background. Both through his mentorship and his writing, he has inspired generations of scholars both in Africa and beyond.


Above all, Thandika wanted us all to be more careful with the truth and mindful about the impacts that our scholarship might have on the world. As someone with first-hand experience of the injustices of colonialism, authoritarianism and neoliberalism, he took politics and political economy very seriously. He understood that knowledge itself played a central role in development, and he wrote with a profound respect for the power of ideas to reshape the world. Much of his work drew attention to the history of ideas and the ways in which geopolitics had affected the material infrastructure for knowledge production within African countries. In this way, his ideas and worldview will be as relevant for the century to come as they were for the one just past.


ASAUK is honoured to be able to recognise the tremendous contribution of Thandika Mkandawire by bestowing upon him the inaugural ASA UK Lasting Legacy Award.


Key readings from Professor Thandika Mkandawire


Please note that the work listed here is only a small portion of Professor Mkandawire’s output, as a comprehensive list already exists here, provided by CODESRIA. We encourage those interested in finding out more about Professor Mkandawire’s life and legacy to visit the CODESRIA site, which also contains details of events and publications organized in his honour.


These readings are presented in chronological order. Links will take you to a publicly available PDF.