Mar 30 2020

Thandika Mkandawire

Thandika Mkandawire

Thandika Mkandawire

The Department of International Development mourns the loss of our colleague and friend, Thandika Mkandawire, who passed away on 27 March in Stockholm, attended by his wife and sons.

Thandika was a giant in the field of development economics. He brought a depth of knowledge and insight to the field; the Department – and all of LSE – will always be a better place for the decade he spent with us.

Thandika came to LSE after distinguished periods as Executive Secretary of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) (for more on Thandika’s life, including growing up in colonial southern Africa and experiences in the US, Ecuador, and Sweden, see this interview published in 2019 in Development and Change).

Thandika was a beacon of transformative research on African development, never shy to challenge the conventional wisdom. An inspirational thinker and great teacher, he was full of innovative perspectives. And, moreover, a lucid writer (he was a journalist before turning to academia), Thandika had a gift that allowed him to weigh in persuasively in key debates, and that gave his research a global reach.

Thandika’s depth of understanding was magnified throughout his career by active engagement with institutions of research and higher education, through which he sought to nurture informed thinking about Africa, not only through his own research, but by generating frameworks to nurture the work of fellow African scholars, African students and students of Africa. His impact on development economics and the social sciences is deep and will be long-lasting.

Much of Thandika’s research focused on the role of African states in promoting late development. He expressed a deep scepticism of easily-invoked claims of weak state capacity, but at the same time was keenly aware of the challenges facing states and state institutions in Africa and, more generally, throughout the “Global South.” Indeed, in the 1980s and 1990s, as the role of the state became a crucial topic of analysis in all of development studies, a view neatly described by development scholars as seeing the state as “problem and solution”, Thandika’s contributions were immense. He was a leading force in lifting a veil of patrimonialism that, regrettably, tended to dominate scholarship on the capacities and potentials of African states.

Thandika’s important contributions to development also include his extensive writing, teaching, and public engagement on the links between social development and industrial development. He was pivotal in placing social policy at the heart of development studies, not an after-thought or luxury to be enjoyed only at higher levels of income, but a critical dimension of development dynamics. His focus on the productive elements of social policy, for example, has inspired a generation of scholars who examine the interface between education and health policies and broader projects of industrial transformation.

Thandika always embraced a broad vision of development challenges, not just about what was happening in “Africa,” but through an informed comparative approach to countries within the vast African continent, and across regions. Indeed, the time he spent in Latin America continued to influence his thinking through the years, making him appreciate the different challenges facing countries tightly-linked to the USA relative to those he experienced first-hand in British-dominated colonial Africa.

In addition to his exceptional scholarship and teaching, Thandika was, simply, a wonderfully sweet person – caring, cool-headed, and funny. Having Thandika in our midst was a blessing for which we will be forever grateful. His absence will be a profound loss for all of us.

Our deepest sympathies are with Thandika’s family, and the thousands of people across the globe who are also mourning the loss of their colleague, friend, and teacher.

Ken Shadlen
Professor of Development Studies and Head of Department
Department of International Development

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9 Responses to Thandika Mkandawire

  1. Raymond Apthorpe says:

    I first met Thandika in 1958 in Malawi – when it was Nyasaland – when I was checking some errors in a cost of living study carried out there and elsewhere by the Rhodes Livingstone Institute for Research into Human Problems in Central Africa as part of today’s University of Zambia then was and turned to him for information and inspiration. He was a young reporter working for Tsopano (Now), a pioneering radical political magazine in that part of the world in those days. I last met him at LSE. One afternoon we tried to get what we had seen over the intervening decades in the world of development studies sorted. We soon gave up of course even to come up with anything coherent, traipsing through more than a half century of false pretensions and fake news with though a few spangles that, strangely enough, we both attributed to moments at UNRISD where, at very different times, we had both worked, he as its Director in the 1990’s or so . [UNRISD? Have you ever even heard of it?] But and it was so characteristic it was not really the past he wanted to sort out, but the future. For which all his life, for his successors, he worked always with such energy, such distinction, such strategic insight and intelligence, such success.

    • Jonathan Makuwira says:

      The passing of Thandika, a distinguished scholar of our time in development economics is a big loss not only to LSE but also to his original home country, Malawi. A humble human being who, in my view epitomized real development practice and engaged with other scholars in a manner that built an inquiring mind.

      It was in November 2017 that I intimately had a good chat with him at a Social Policy Conference, University of Pretoria, South Africa. I was impressed by his visionary thinking about the future of development in Africa. May his soul rest in peace.

  2. Vidhu Tyagi says:

    Deeply saddened to learn his demise.
    I was a student of his in 2010 and he played a pivotal role in changing my thought process and exposing me to African development economics.

    My best wishes and condolences to his family and friends.


  3. Diva Shah says:

    Though I knew Thandika briefly, he was a very warm, friendly being, always smiling and laughing. Yet he never missed an opportunity to push your thinking on African Development to look beyond the said stories and theories to finding solutions for future. No matter which corner of LSE you saw Thandika, he was ALWAYS smiling and ALWAYS humble. You will be missed. Deepest condolences to family and loved ones.

  4. jude howell says:

    Thandika was an immensely knowledgeable, kind and approachable person. He was, as many have already said, `an intellectual giant’ but he was also very modest. I enjoyed so much the conversations I had with Thandika on the direction of development studies, on development issues and on Africa. I wish I could have more time with him. He will be sorely missed. His passing is a huge loss to our department. We were honoured to have someone with such a range of experience and intellectual breadth amongst us. My deep condolences to his family and loved ones.

  5. Shaun Jordan says:

    Very sad news, a very open and friendly man.
    Will be missed. Condolences to his family and friends.

  6. Daniel Beckley says:

    Professor Thandika was a cool gentleman and a supportive partner championing diversity and inclusion at LSE. He was also a wonderful friend to myself and colleagues. As one of only few black professors at LSE, there is no doubt Professor Thandika, will be remembered for more than a lifetime. May his soul rest in peace.

  7. Judith Shapiro says:

    You and the wider world have sustained the loss of a profound thinker, and, as others have written, always. able to remain a warm and inspiring human being. An internationalist and intellectual. A Swedish African, African Swede. Never bitter, though always sharp

  8. Howard Stein says:

    I had the joy of knowing and interacting with Thandika over many years. One of the greatest development economists ever to work on Africa. Principled, brilliant, relentless in his pursuit of the truth and great sense of humor. He will be missed.

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