What Is the What, Dave Eggers’ fictionalized account of the life of Valentino Achak Deng, was one of the most notable books of 2007. It tells the story of a Sudanese refugee who, at the age of 7, is forced to flee his home, when his village is raided by a government-supported gang. He joins a group of other orphaned boys on a long walk to Ethiopia, where they hope to find sanctuary. On their way they are threatened by exhaustion, starvation, militias and wild animals. Some make it to Ethiopia, many don’t. When the Ethiopian government is overthrown, local villagers expel the refugees from the camp, driving them back across the border to Sudan. Valentino is forced to flee once more, this time to Kenia.

After several years in a refugee camp he is admitted to the U.S. But as he discovers, life in the U.S. isn’t what he had expected. He is refused admittance to college because of his age, has to accept one low wage job after another, is robbed and assaulted in his own house and meets with discrimination wherever he goes. He doesn’t retreat into lamentation though. With the same determination that got him to the U.S. he continues struggling for a better future.

In one passage Valentino tells of a fellow refugee’s plan to return to Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya accommodating about 70,000 refugees, to find a Sudanese wife. Through an uncle in the camp, who sent him pictures by email, he had found four eligible women. As Eggers/Valentino writes “the Sudanese in America are considered celebrities in Kakuma, and are presumed to possess indescribable wealth (..) so it follows that the opportunity to be married to such a man would be enormously attractive.” Still, two of the four women turn him down after seeing a picture of him. As Valentino/Eggers remarks, “even ten years ago, [it would have been] impossible that a woman would insist on seeing a picture of a prospective groom.”

With the choice narrowed down to two girls “it came down to brideprice”. One of the girls is very beautiful and her family demands a high price for her, one of the highest ever heard of in Kakuma: two hundred and forty cows, which translates to approximately USD 20,000. “As you can imagine, a man like Gabriel, who is being paid USD 9.90 at a beef-processing plant, is lucky to have saved USD 500 over the course of two years.” So Gabriel decides to hear the price of his second choice, which turns out to be one hundred and forty cows or USD 13,000.

As Valentino/Eggers continues, “From there, Gabriel had some thinking to do. He could not afford this price, either, but rarely does a man pay the bride price alone; it is a family matter, assisted by many uncles, cousins and friends.” Gabriel manages to arrange the money, which of course, is only the beginning: there are visas, a wedding, travel permits, a green card and countless other things to be arranged. It may take years before he can settle in the U.S. with his prospective wife. In the meantime he has to hope she doesn’t run of with another man.

Reading this passage made me curious to know more about the economics of brideprice. The asking price is determined by the family of the prospective wife and is based upon her physical beauty and an estimate of the wealth of the prospective groom. It is interesting to observe that the asking price is in cows, but can be paid in a monetary equivalent. With the price set at a level that far exceeds the savings and lending capacity of the groom, the question is whether marriage makes any economic sense.

In a close-knit society the brideprice will circulate among its members. The family on the receiving end will have to pay when a son or a cousin intends to marry. The system begins to crack when birth rates decline, communities grow and distances between family members become wider.

Valentino and his Sudanese friends and relatives would no doubt be astonished to learn that in India it was, - and despite being outlawed in 1980 in some areas still is -, customary for the family of the prospective wife to put up money for her to enter into a marriage, a practice referred to as dowry.

Gary Becker, who won the Nobel prize in 1992, was the first to apply economic theory to the analysis of marriage and family relations. Becker regarded marriage as a joint venture whereby each person seeks to maximize his or her utility. If the marriage market is in equilibrium no person can be made better off by marrying someone else or staying single. If the rule of division of output within the marriage is inflexible, and partners do not get their share as under the market solution, an up-front compensatory transfer will be made between the spouses. In economic terms dowry reflects a negative price for a bride, whereas brideprice reflects a positive price.

The work of Becker revolutionized the study of marriage and family relations and it has since become a small but active field in economics with applications ranging from determining the level of divorce alimony to the taxation of the wife's income in small husband and wife firms.

The economic analysis of family relations is only part of the story. To fully understand the practice of dowry and brideprice one would also have to consider the particular conditions of the society in which it occurs. Dowry can also be seen as an advance inheritance or as a gift to the newly weds to help them set up a home. This may be why in some societies dowry and brideprice co-exist.

A fundamental problem with the calibration of economic models of brideprice and dowry to empirical data is that economic models give an idealized account of what may never have functioned as such in reality even when the practice was first initiated.

It is beyond the limits of economic theory to explain the disappearance of dowry and brideprice in contemporary societies. Or perhaps if the wealth of one family member increases above a certain level the marginal utility of the income brought in by the spouse becomes small so as to make any form of dowry or brideprice superfluous. In the past newly wed couples moved straight from their parents to their own house. Today in most contemporary societies before getting married most couples have lived alone and/or together and already own cutlery, pots and pans etc. which once were the traditional presents given at a wedding.

Siwan Anderson, The economics of dowry and brideprice. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 21, No. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 151-174.

Lena Edlund, Marriage: Past, Present, Future?. CESifo Economic Studies, Vol. 52, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 621-639.

Vijayendra Rao, The Economics of Dowries in India. In: Kaushik Basu [ed.], Oxford Companion to Economics. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Duran Bell and Shunfeng Song, Explaining the Level of Bridewealth. Current Anthropology, Vol. 35, No. 3, June 1994, pp. 311-316.