VoxEU Column Development Economic history

Colonialism and development in Africa

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.

The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 formalised what has become known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. European powers arbitrarily divided up Africa among 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 as Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and probably Angola and Mozambique as well;
  • Everyone else - colonies which did not experience significant white settlement and where there was either no significant pre-colonial state formation (like Somalia or South Sudan) or where there was a mixture of centralised and uncentralised societies (such as Congo-Brazzaville, Nigeria, Uganda and Sierra Leone).

It seems reasonable to assume that all groups, absent colonialism, would have had the same contacts with the rest of the world. This implies missionaries would have gone to convert people and built schools, the League of Nations would have tried to abolish coerced labour, and the WHO would have tried to disseminate medical technology. Moreover, it implies that African countries would have continued to export, as many had prior to 1885.

In terms of political institutions, in the first set of countries the type of state formation and development that had taken place in the 19th century would have continued. The evidence clearly suggests that states such as the Tswana states in Botswana, the Asante state in Ghana, or the Rwanda state were becoming more centralised and consolidated. This does not imply that economic institutions were necessarily becoming better. Nevertheless, political centralisation is a prerequisite for order and public good provision2 and though states also collapse, once started there are strong forces leading political centralisation to intensify. In the second and third sets we similarly assume that political institutions would have continued on the path they had in the 19th century.

Colonialism retarded development

Taking into account these trends as well as recognising the need for a counterfactual we argue that in two sorts of colonies there is a clear case to be made for colonialism retarding development; those with a centralised state at the time of Scramble for Africa and those of white settlement.

In the former, just the assumption that the previous patterns of political development would continue is sufficient to argue that these countries would be more developed today. Colonialism not only blocked further political development, but indirect rule made local elites less accountable to their citizens. After independence, even if these states had a coherence others lacked, they had far more predatory rulers. These polities also suffered from the uniform colonial legacies of racism, stereotypes and misconceptions that Africans may not have had and which have since caused immense problems, most notably in Burundi and Rwanda.

In colonies of white settlement the most important factor was that the highly extractive nature of colonial rule and land grabs manifested themselves, as we noted, in quite serious immiserisation of Africans during the colonial period. The evolution of the international dissemination and diffusion of technology plus the relative absence of slavery in this part of Africa makes it likely that, absent colonialism, African living standards would have slowly improved. This, plus the large increases in inequality and the racial and ethnic conflicts bequeathed to these colonies after the end of colonialism, make it plausible that development outcomes in places such as Zimbabwe would be better today and over the last century had it not been colonised.

The third set of cases are more complex because it does not seem plausible that the pre-colonial institutions of Somalia, for example, were conducive to development or were undergoing a process of state formation. Yet even in many of these more ambiguous cases it seems hard to make a strong case in favor of colonialism actually fostering development. It could be, to consider Uganda, that the British brought stability by stopping long-running conflicts between the pre-colonial states of Buganda, Bunyoro, Ankole and Tooro. Yet the evidence suggests that even these societies were very ready to adopt better technology when it appeared3 and any gains that there might have been in terms of stability were reversed when the British left in 1962, bequeathing to the Ugandans a polity with no workable social contract resulting in 50 years of political instability, military dictatorships and civil war.


All in all, it is difficult to bring the available evidence together with plausible counterfactuals to argue that there is any country today in Sub-Saharan Africa that is more developed because it was colonised by Europeans. Quite the contrary.


Acemoglu, Daron and Simon Johnson (2007), “Disease and Development: The Effect of Life Expectancy on Economic Growth”, Journal of Political Economy, 115, 925-985.

Austin, Gareth, Jörg Baten and Alexander Moradi (2011), “Exploring the Evolution of Living Standards in Ghana, 1880-2000: An Anthropometric Approach”.

Frankema, Ewout and Marlous van Waijenburg (2011), “Real Wages in British Africa, 1880-1940”, University of Utrecht.

Heldring, Leander and Robinson, James A (2012), “Colonialism and Development in Africa”, NBER Working Paper, 18566.

Moradi, Alexander (2009), “Towards an Objective Account of Nutrition and Health in Colonial Kenya: A Study of Stature in African Army Recruits and Civilians, 1880-1980”, Journal of Economic History, 96(3), 720-755.

Reid, Richard J (2002), Political Power in Pre-Colonial Buganda: Economy Society And Warfare, Oxford, James Currey.

1 In fact, Acemoglu and Johnson (2007) show that the impact of this dissemination was independent of countries’ actions.

2 It is not a coincidence, for example, that it is countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda that are now able to experience by far the fastest growth rates in Africa.

3 Cf. Reid (2002) on Buganda.


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