The persistence of economic fortune over the long run has been the subject of intense research. This column investigates the persistence of patterns of economic activity in the Americas at the sub-national level over the last half millennium. The location of today’s prosperous cities and regions within each country is closely correlated with the location of indigenous population centres before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Policymakers seeking to make radical changes in the spatial distribution of economic activity should be mindful of the centuries-old, even pre-colonial, forces working against them.
William Maloney, Felipe Valencia Caicedo, 14 June 2016
Stelios Michalopoulos, Elias Papaioannou, 24 December 2015
The carving up of Africa by colonial powers is often a touch-stone for those concerned with African development and underdevelopment. This column looks into the effect imposed borders had on splitting ethnicities across countries. It finds that colonial border designs have spurred political violence and that ethnic partitioning is systematically linked to civil conflict, discrimination by the national government, and instability.
Mercedes Delgado, Christian Ketels, Michael Porter, Scott Stern, 18 September 2014
There is a consensus among economists that ‘deep roots’ – geography, natural endowments, and institutions – are important determinants of prosperity differences across countries. This column argues that deep roots matter, but they are neither the whole story nor an excuse for political inaction today. Current policies are important – especially the broad range of policies that shape the business environment and the sophistication of companies – and they are affected but not determined by the past.
André Carlos Martínez, Aldo Musacchio, Martina Viarengo, 09 July 2014
Institutions are known to play a powerful and enduring role in countries’ divergent levels of economic development. This column presents evidence that institutions matter for within-country inequality, too. In Brazil, changes in export prices and export tax revenues led to an increase in education spending in states that experienced commodity booms, which increased the number of schools and improved educational outcomes such as literacy rates. However, the effect was limited in states where slavery was predominant in colonial times.
Denis Cogneau, Alexander Moradi, 17 May 2014
The quasi-experiment of arbitrary border design allows for causal interpretation of institutional effects across territories. This column presents evidence on the impact of British and French colonial education policies in West Africa. British flexibility and French centralisation resulted in educational attainment differences that persist – across one border – even among some cohorts of the current workforce.
Leander Heldring, James Robinson, 10 January 2013
Most of Africa spent two generations under colonial rule. This column argues that, contrary to some recent commentaries highlighting the benefits of colonialism, it is this intense experience that has significantly retarded economic development across the continent. Relative to any plausible counterfactual, Africa is poorer today than it would have been had colonialism not occurred.
Wolfgang Keller, Ben Li, Carol Shiue, 19 December 2010
The growing power of Chinese trade is almost daily news. This column argues that China’s role in world trade today is shaped in part by the post-1978 market reforms and in part by the Western invasion in the 19th century. Following the Opium Wars, China was forced to open its borders, providing the bedrock of technology and infrastructure that supported its future growth.
Santiago Sanchez-Pages, 24 September 2010
Are conflicts worth it? This column argues that they can be. While wars are extremely damaging, they can be in the interests of one party if they help reveal the true balance of power and thereby change the stakes in eventual negotiations. This explains why small countries take on superpowers with no chance of winning and why unions go on strike against laws already passed.