Historical Legacies and African Development
NBER Working Paper No. 25278
As Africa's role on the global stage is rising, so does the need to understand the shadow of history on the continent's economy and polity. We discuss recent works that shed light on Africa's colonial and precolonial legacies. The emerging corpus is remarkably interdisciplinary. Archives, ethnographic materials, georeferenced censuses, surveys, and satellite imagery are some of the sources often combined to test influential conjectures put forward in African historiography. Exploiting within-country variation and employing credible, albeit mostly local, identification techniques, this recent literature has uncovered strong evidence of historical continuity as well as instances of rupture in the evolution of the African economy. The exposition proceeds in reverse chronological order. Starting from the colonial period, which has been linked to almost all of Africa's post-independence maladies, we first review works that uncover the lasting legacies of colonial investments in infrastructure and human capital and quantify the role of various extractive institutions, such as indirect rule and oppression associated with concessionary agreements. Second, we discuss the long-lasting impact of the "Scramble for Africa" which led to ethnic partitioning and the creation of artificial modern states. Third, we cover studies on the multi-faceted legacy of the slave trades. Fourth, we analyze the contemporary role of various precolonial, ethnic-specific, institutional and social traits, such as political centralization. We conclude by offering some thoughts on what we view as open questions.
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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25278