The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 formalised what has become known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. European powers arbitrarily divided up Africa between themselves and started administrating their new colonies. Seventy years later they bequeathed to native Africans countries that looked remarkably different from how they looked in 1880. And, albeit with some exceptions, these countries are among the poorest in the world today.
Africa without colonialism?
Would Africa’s economic development have been different without colonialism? Would it have been richer today? Debate has raged on this question for 50 years but for the first time exciting research by economic historians in colonial archives is putting the debate on a sound empirical footing. Some of the findings are puzzling for critics of colonialism. There is evidence of improved economic development outcomes within the colonial period, for instance real wages increased under the formal sector in British West Africa (Frankema and Van Waaijenburg 2005). Moreover, the stature of military recruits in Ghana and British East Africa suggests that height increased during the colonial period (Moradi 2009, Austin, Baten and Moradi 2011), a sign of increasing prosperity. Was colonial rule as predatory as many claim? Should we take this as evidence that colonialism was good for development? Our recent research (Heldring and Robinson 2012) evaluates this question and argues that the answer is probably no.
A few observations are in order:
- Most African countries saw steadily rising incomes over the colonial period relative to the base year 1885.
Africans were able to reap the benefits of the introduction of railways and mining technology. Furthermore, being colonised meant deeper integration into world trade. Yet, how much of this is due to colonialism and how much of it would have happened anyway, in the wake of trade expansion is unclear.
- The fact that we see living standards increase on average does not imply that everybody’s living standards increased.
For instance, in southern Africa the immiserising impact of land expropriation and the creation of ‘dual economies’ (Palmer and Parsons 1977) on incomes suggests that Africans experienced a severe deterioration in living standards as the consequence of colonialism. So we might observe formal sector wages going up while the vast majority of the population, cut off from the formal sector, sees its purchasing power deteriorate.
- Evaluating the impact of colonialism involves not just looking at the raw numbers but considering the counterfactual. We have to think about what the trajectories of African societies would have been in the absence of colonialism.
For example, would the type of immiserisation of Africans in South Africa have happened if the Zulu state had taken over the Rand and developed the gold mining industry? If the Europeans brought technology or institutions, absent colonialism Africans could have adopted or innovated these themselves. In addition, any of this data has to be seen in the context of existing trends and international comparisons. It seems plausible that even without colonisation missionaries would have expanded education and the WHO would have brought medical technology, for instance1.
- To understand the impact of colonialism on development one has to think carefully about what happened after colonialism as well.
To judge the impact of colonialism on development in Africa simply by looking at outcomes during the colonial period is a conceptual mistake. Post-independence Africa looked nothing like it would have done in the absence of colonialism. Indeed, in most cases post-independence economic decline in Africa can be explicitly attributed to colonialism because the types of mechanisms that led to this decline were creations of colonial society.
Three types of colonies
To facilitate the use of counterfactuals we distinguish between three types of colony:
- Those with a centralised state at the time of Scramble for Africa, such as Benin, Botswana, Burundi, Ethiopia, Ghana, Lesotho, Rwanda, and Swaziland;
- Those of white settlement, such