Lelo Nxumalo is from Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. He graduated from Pestalozzi in 2006, progressing directly to Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, USA. He graduated with full honours in a BA in Economics in 2010. Lelo then went on to Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government for his graduate studies in International Development, after a two and a half year stint at the International Monetary Fund.
I initially wanted to study Biology, and indeed my first year in college was devoted to doing that. However, with the hyperinflation in Zimbabwe making headlines worldwide, my classmates were curious to know what exactly was happening. I felt the need to understand the language of economics at least to inform myself why it was that my country was printing money like crazy. This led me to the sub-fields of macroeconomics and economic development, which tackle some of the problems I lived through as a child in Zimbabwe.
After graduating from Hampshire College, I got a job as a Research Analyst at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington DC, where I was from 2010 to 2012. I worked in the African Department, covering the central African oil exporting countries, which are part of a currency union.
I travelled to Cameroon several times on behalf of the IMF to learn from the regional authorities and to share policy advice drawn from research by myself and colleagues in the African Department. The topics I discussed included reserve adequacy, efficiency of public investment and doing business. I most enjoyed discussing my research on international reserve adequacy, which I had conducted with my mentor and supervisor, Ms Carol Baker. While data and research at headquarters was fun, it never came close to being on the ground and talking to people, eating local food, and getting to know my mission team outside work. Needless to say, this was where most of the learning occurred.
In my opinion, the most challenging aspects of economic research include the shortcomings of existing macroeconomic models in capturing reality and the resulting padding that most policy makers then use to justify certain actions. There are often are various 'solutions' to the same problem and this leads to ideological squabbles dominating the field of economics. Consider the way the EU countries have been addressing debt crises in the Eurozone. There are many who believe that austerity is the right approach to the economic troubles in Greece. On the other hand, there are some Nobel economists who argue the opposite, and convincingly so. This makes economics challenging and intellectually stimulating but also sobering, especially if you consider that economic policy ultimately affects people’s lives.
Economic research not only requires an appreciation of the econometric models in the field but also an awareness of realities on the ground. These models are not flawless and should always be taken with a grain of salt. The ability to merge one's education with reality informed by interactions with those most in need, I believe, make the profession engaging with the Head, Heart, and Hands.
My advice to students who want to go into economics is that while maths is key, being able to communicate with people from different cultures is crucial. I studied Spanish at Pestalozzi, and took some French while working at the IMF. The latter proved to be useful for working in Francophone Africa. Learning different languages can open so many doors. Learn to write and to write well because you will often be called upon to summarise an important policy problem in a one-page memo, and being able to do so is actually more challenging than it may sound. Other than that? Master your calculus. Visit places, talk to people from backgrounds other than your own. Read the Economist magazine.
The multicultural and international perspective one gets from Pestalozzi is invaluable, it encourages open minds and fosters international understanding. Needless to say I partly owe my passion and preparedness of an international career to Pestalozzi. I would not be where I am today without Pestalozzi.
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(Updated: June 2013)