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.
Professor of Development Studies and Head of Department
Department of International Development