Political Economy, Agriculture, and Global Food Security: An Interview with Dr. Haja Rajaonarison

Read our Faculty Spotlight Interview with Dr. Haja Rajaonarison.

Dr. Rajaonarison teaching Political Economy class at iCLA

Dr. Rajaonarison’s Course List:
・Political Thought
・International Political Economy
・Political Economy of Development

We asked Dr. Rajaonarison about his specialization and advice for students interested in Political Economy:

Q: What sparked your passion for Political Science?

I was always very interested in development issues. And I learned that to make things happen, we need politics. That was the big motivation for me to study politics.

Q: Was there a specific event that happened when you felt like you wanted to spark change?

I think it was when I was in junior high school. It was around 2002. There was a big revolution in Madagascar and a political crisis at that time.

Q: Please tell me about your area of specialization, Political Economy.

The unique feature of Political Economy is its versatility. You can use the disciplines of Political Science, Economics, and Sociology, and you can even go beyond that. Now, we have Data Science. So we can tap into anything to understand how to make things work or why something didn’t work in terms of policy. All of those complex issues, like climate change, food security, energy crisis, development and poverty, and financial crisis – Political Economy is the best discipline for comprehending them all. I wrote a Master’s Thesis about global food security, and I wrote my dissertation on “The New Political Economy of Agricultural Development and Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa.” I’m very passionate about food.

Dr. Rajaonarison teaching Political Economy class at iCLA.

Q: What do you find most enjoyable about your field of study?

We can always discover new things with Political Economy. You can really adjust to the problem by tapping into different disciplines to help you come up with a better understanding of the problem. When I was writing my dissertation about food security, I wondered how we could, for instance, help poor countries get rich. We know the ingredients, but we don’t know the recipe. We know that if we invest in some projects, that might trigger development. But still, the issue is that we don’t know the recipe. How do we combine all of that to create something spectacular? I started in 2010 with agriculture, because at that time, I was just very interested in development. But after I started to read and explore the literature on agriculture, I discovered that only two economies in the world did not use agriculture to develop other activities. And these economies are Singapore and Hong Kong. Agriculture in 2008 was a very hot topic because there was a food crisis, a financial crisis, and an energy crisis. So we had multiple crises emerging at the same time. That sparked my curiosity – there’s this new dynamic that is very interesting to study. I spent my time thinking about how we can better understand the trajectory of different countries, their capacity and capability to produce food, and what kind of solution we can offer to countries with high agricultural potential.

Q: What is your favorite piece of research that you’ve conducted and why?

Recently, I’ve also been working on the case of Madagascar, my own country. Geographically, I would say Madagascar is disadvantaged. Everyone is aware of its location on the map. However, in terms of development issues, it is in the middle of nowhere. For example, we have had some episodes of famines recently. Such a tragic event elicited no international response.

Since I worked with Japanese experts and JICA when I was in Madagascar, I’m focusing on what Japan has been doing since 2013 until now. Japan envisions a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” I’m conducting research to learn more about what Japan is doing on the ground. Is it consistent with its global perspective, or is the reality quite different? I intend to integrate it with other countries later on. This is a personal battle to keep Madagascar in the spotlight, or at the very least to raise awareness of the problems there. I hope that my research and other activities will help to raise public awareness of Madagascar.

Q: Can you tell me about the journey of how you came to study and teach in Japan?

I got very interested in the language when I was an undergraduate student. They invited a Japanese teacher and volunteer from JOCV (Japan Overseas Volunteer Corporation) and JICA also manages this program. To motivate me, my teacher at the time took me to various events and introduced me to the Japanese community.

When I graduated, I was introduced to people who were conducting an official development aid evaluation of the Japanese aid in Madagascar, and that was something I was very interested in. I didn’t know anything about it, but I was good enough to search for information. I was involved in different projects: agriculture, education, and health. But in 2008 – 2009, there was a big political crisis that happened in Madagascar because of the food (everything is related in my story).

The government was pushed out, and the Japanese government also decided to suspend all of their projects there. So I decided to apply for the MEXT Scholarship to study in Japan. I got it and I came in 2010. I did my Master’s program, I did my Ph.D., and then, after that, I was hired as a researcher at the Graduate School of Economics at Kyoto University. I also started to teach at Doshisha and Ritsumeikan. The topics I was teaching were related to development, economics, and politics—in general, all of these I would call “Political Economy”. I was very much interested in a [teaching] position that was specifically about Political Economy.

Q: How would you describe your class style?

In class, we will learn basic theories of Political Economy and, slowly, we’ll be practicing it. It is hard to understand Political Economy if we don’t practice it. So I usually share different cases with my class. I guide them, like, “how do you understand the problem?”, and there is no perfect answer for that. It’s based on their understanding of the problem, their discussions, and the way they defend their arguments. I also teach them that “when you identify a particular issue, you should be able to explain why you think that it is the most important problem that you need to tackle”. It gradually improves their ability to conduct political economy analysis. We need a lot of exchange in Political Economy, it’s not just a lecture. We always try to improve our understanding of things and our way of coming up with specific solutions. But the solutions are not coming from me, they’re always coming from the [students]. Students should be able to conduct Political Economy analysis on any specific case by the end of the semester.

Q: What is your tip for students who want to pursue a deeper understanding of Political Economy?

The first thing is to learn the basics of Political Science theory. Second, Economics theory. And now we are slowly trying to introduce Data Science. Issues are constantly changing. If we want to better understand those issues, we first need to learn about the basics: how politics works, how the economy works, and what is the data telling us about those two things. By combining those three disciplines, I think students can take advantage of the opportunity they have here to really study and dig deeper into the topic of their interest. We have professors here who can guide them all along their journey at iCLA.

Dr. Haja Michel Rajaonarison’s Faculty Profile