VoxEU Column Development Economic history

The devil is in the detail: Christian missions’ heterogeneous effects on development in sub-Saharan Africa

Throughout history, religious change is known to have brought about significant economic change in many countries. This column, taken from a recent Vox eBook, looks at the effects of the Christian missionary activity that expanded throughout African countries from the middle of the 19th century. It shows how the diversity of investments brought by Christian missionaries to the region had different, and sometimes conflicting, effects on long-term development.

Editor's note: This column first appeared as a chapter in the Vox eBook, The Long Economic and Political Shadow of History, Volume 2, available to download here.

Following Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson’s seminal contribution on the long-term determinants of comparative development (Acemoglu et al. 2001), there has been extensive applied work in economics aimed at quantifying the extent to which colonisation, and the institutions established by colonisers, has affected the development of African countries in the long run. A new Vox eBook (Michalopoulos and Papaioannou 2017) illustrates the diversity of ways in which colonial institutions persistently shaped African development: in their legal design (Vol.1 Chapter 8), through extractive institutions like slavery and forced labour, (Vol. 2 Chapters 1 and 4, and Vol. 3 Chapter 2), the consequences of the arbitrary drawing of political borders (Vol. 2 Chapter 2), and colonial investments (Vol.1 Chapters 7 and 10, and Vol.3 Chapter 1). In this column, we study the effects of another form of European settlement that expanded throughout African countries, from the middle of the 19th century: Christian missionary activity.

In general, it was not the aim of Christian missionaries to establish any form of political rule in foreign lands, although they did have a central role in shaping some institutions, in particular through the abolition of slavery. Their primary objective can be interpreted as a form of spiritual imperialism, achieved by bringing Christianity into all the newly colonised territories. The conversion mission was relatively effective; today, in countries such as Angola, DRC, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, or Zimbabwe, Christians represent 80% or more of the population. However, throughout history, religious change is known to have brought about significant economic change in many countries – conversion to Christianity in Africa was no exception.

The long-term consequences of religious incentives on economic success have been widely studied in the social sciences, the most well-known theory being Max Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic’ (Weber 1930). According to Weber, the “intrinsic character of the religious [Protestant] belief” is a possible, although not unique, explanation for the development of ‘economic rationalism’ (p. 49). Weber’s simplified argument is that, for the more ascetic branches of Protestantism, devotion to one’s work is a form of religious piety because, in the dogma, salvation is predetermined by God. Continuous hard work and asceticism, as a sign of having a calling, were thus interpreted as signs of salvation. In Weber’s work, the more ascetic branches of Protestantism incentivised continuous hard work, which in turn explains the relatively higher economic performance of Protestant regions compared to Catholic ones. Chapter 7 in Volume 3 of Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2017) also presents the modern economic research on the economic change brought by the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

Another fascinating example of the long-lasting economic effects of religion is the case of Judaism. In their book, The Chosen Few, Botticini and Eckstein (2012) claim that the over- representation of the Jewish population in high-skilled and high-earning jobs results from the reforms of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the beginning of the Talmud era 150 years later. These reforms centred the practice of religion on the study of the Torah at a young age and on the codification of Jewish law in the written Talmud. According to the authors, this new practice of Judaism is in fact the central explanation for the Jewish population shifting out of agriculture towards more skilled and urban professions.

Religions affect individuals’ decisions because they establish a set of values that have an impact on individual decision making. In many cases, religions also impose constraints on economic decisions, such as the possibility of accumulating assets or education. In this column, we will show that Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa had long-lasting consequences on development. In particular, we show that the diversity of investments brought by Christian missionaries to the region had different, and sometimes conflicting, effects on long-term development. 

Protestantism and development: Human capital rather than the Protestant ethic?

Religious beliefs can affect economic outcomes through what they actually are – a set of beliefs and values; however, religions also affect individual choices such as education and investment in public goods, because they have become institutions with a certain form of central power. Recent work in economics has studied these types of channels to understand the role of religion on growth and development, as opposed to focusing on values per se. This strand of research questions Weber’s thesis that work ethic alone explains fully the better economic performance of Protestant regions in Europe. In the same vein as Botticini and Eckstein’s work on Judaism, these studies claim that Protestantism increased incentives for education.

In the Protestant doctrine, every Protestant should be able to read the Bible, a principle also known as Sola Scriptura. The Sola Scriptura, therefore, led to an increase in human capital in regions that adopted Protestantism, which in turn fostered economic growth (Becker and Woessmann 2009, Bai and Kung 2014, McCleary and Pesina 2013, Woodberry 2012, Cantoni 2015). In other words, human capital rather than work ethic would explain economic development (see, in particular, Chapter 7 in Volume 3 of Michalopoulos and Papaioannou 2017, “Protestant Reformation’s Impact in Europe”). In our work, we focus on a different aspect of conversion to Christianity: we study the lasting effects of missionary investments – in particular, the printing press – on development.

The long-term effects of the printing press: Evidence from the European Renaissance

The printing press was a major technological change – a media revolution – since it drastically decreased the costs of diffusing and replicating information. Dittmar (2011) has shown extensively that the introduction of the printing press was a crucial catalyst for economic growth during the Renaissance in Europe. He shows that those European cities where printing presses were established between 1450 and 1500 grow 60% faster between 1500 and 1600 than, otherwise similar, cities which were not early adopters. Why? According to Dittmar, cities that first adopted print media benefited from localised spill-overs in human capital accumulation and technological change; in other words, the print media eased the diffusion of skills that were valuable to merchants.

One example of this is the emergence of textbooks on ‘commercial arithmetic’, to teach merchants the basic arithmetic skills necessary for their businesses.

The nature of industrial organisation and competition also influenced religion, demonstrating that, as with any other institution, religion is also affected by technological change (Dittmar and Seabold 2015). They show that the ideas central to the Protestant Reformation were more likely to be adopted in cities where there was more competition in the printing market. These cities were also more likely to experience higher levels of growth (Dittmar 2015).

Protestant missions and the printing press in sub-Saharan Africa

While the aforementioned studies of the effects of religion on development consider Protestant conversion as a whole, our approach has focused on exploring the heterogeneity of missionary activity in sub-Saharan Africa. More precisely, we estimate the long-term effects of specific investments on development. Dittmar’s research provides a detailed overview of how the printing market had long-lasting effects on growth in Europe. Our first strand of research investigates the role of the missionary printing press in sub-Saharan Africa, using a new geocoded dataset and several previously unexploited historical archives (Cagé & Rueda 2016).

In 19th century sub-Saharan Africa, missions invested in numerous activities, amongst which were education, health care and printing. Protestant missionaries pioneered the development of a written tradition for sub-Saharan African languages. Wherever they went, Protestants quickly formalised indigenous languages and printed Bibles and educational material in these languages. They facilitated access to the printing press, acting as intermediaries for its diffusion. Therefore, most of the first indigenous newspapers were printed and sponsored at mission centres.

Figure 1 Detail of a map from the Geography and Atlas of Protestant Missions

The first newspaper intended for black readers, the Umshumayeli Wendaba (‘Publishers of the News’), written in Xhosa, was published as an irregular quarterly in 1837 and printed at the Wesleyan Missionary Society in Cape Colony. Isigidimi samaXhosa (‘The Xhosa Messenger’), the first African newspaper edited by Africans, was first released in 1876 and printed at the Lovedale Mission Press in South Africa. In 1884, the English/Xhosa weekly Imvo Zabantsundu (‘The African Opinion’), the first black-owned and controlled newspaper in South Africa, was published. On the contrary, in regions where Protestant missions were less active, the first newspapers appeared only at the beginning of the 20th century, and no indigenous newspapers were created before WWI. The first paper in Ivory Coast to be owned and edited by an African, the Éclaireur de la Cote d’Ivoire, only appeared in 1935.

We investigate empirically the effects of such an historical lag in the creation of the first indigenous newspapers, and more specifically of proximity to a printing press on newspaper readership today. In order to do so, we geocoded the maps and the databases of the Geography and Atlas of Protestant Missions, an atlas published in 1903 that located all the missions in the world and inventoried all their investments (Beach 1903). From maps, such as the one shown in Figure 1, we construct a geo-referenced database – for example, the one shown in Figure 2, which gives the exact location of missionary investments – and we merge that with additional geographic information (climate, elevation, etc.) and modern economic data. Our sample of sub-Saharan African missions includes a total of 723 Protestant missions, of which 27 were equipped with a printing press in 1903.

Figure 2 The Geocoded Atlas of Protestant Missions

Using contemporary individual-level data from the Afrobarometer, we find that proximity to the closest location of a mission with a printing press has a robust, positive, and statistically significant impact on civic attitudes and social capital, such as media consumption (newspaper readership) and trust (consistent with the hypothesis formed by historians of sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. Omu 1978 and Tudesq 1995).

 Figure 3 Distribution of trust and newspaper readership

A one-standard deviation increase in proximity to a mission with a printing press increases the probability of reading the news on a monthly basis by around 5.3% of a standard deviation, depending on the specifications. In contrast, proximity to a mission without a printing press – whether Protestant or Catholic – has no significant impact on newspaper readership (Cagé and Rueda 2016). Figure 3 shows the distributions of newspaper readership and trust in regions close to (below the median) and far from (above the median) the printing press. Regions close to the printing press tend to exhibit a lower density of towns with low trust and newspaper readership. Other investments, in turn, do not tend to affect social capital and media consumption in a systematic way.

Christian missions were different, and thus had different effects on development

By looking at the detail of missionary activity, our investigation sheds new light on previous literature about the role that missions play in development. And the devil lies in the detail: missionary activity was extensively heterogeneous and analysing the investments conducted by missions is a way to capture this heterogeneity. Depending on the type of investments conducted, missionary activity had different effects on different dimensions of development. Another way to capture heterogeneity is to look at differences between missionary organisations, which is Valencia-Caicedo’s (2015) approach: he compares human capital accumulation around Jesuit and Franciscan missions among the Guaraní populations in South America.

Our more recent work (in progress) provides further evidence on the intricate development effects of the Christian influence in Africa (Cagé & Rueda 2016b). We study the role played by early missionary investments in sub-Saharan Africa to explain HIV/AIDS prevalence nowadays.

On the one hand, missionaries were the first to invest in medicine in a number of countries. The history of modern medicine in sub-Saharan Africa is indeed closely linked to the development of missionary activity. According to the World Missionary Atlas (Beach and Fahs 1925), there were 150 missionary physicians in Africa in 1925, and more than 235 nurses working with nearly 500 trained native nurses in 116 hospitals and 366 dispensaries.

Moreover, the early Christian provision of health care persisted after colonisation and is particularly influential in the design of health care in poor countries (Idler 2014).

On the other hand, health investments are not the only way through which missionary activity may have affected the propagation of HIV/AIDS. Christian values also affect sexually transmitted diseases and there is quantitative and historical evidence that missionaries actively changed sexual behaviours (Vaughan 2007, Doyle 2013, Mantovanelli 2014).

Figure 4 HIV prevalence and distance to any mission

We show that the net effect of proximity to historical mission settlements on HIV prevalence is negative. As seen in Figure 4, regions far from missions tend to have less HIV prevalence today. This general correlation cannot be fully captured by the fact that missions tend to be located in what are today more densely populated areas, or by any other geographical determinant of missionary activity. However, this negative effect can be captured by negative perceptions of condom use and contraception. Among regions historically close to missionary settlements, proximity to a health investment is associated with lower prevalence rates, more acceptance of contraception, and lower exposure to risky behaviours, such as buying the services of sex workers.

More research is needed to better understand the long-run effects of the colonial period, and in particular the persistent impact of missionary activity. Our work shows that, while Protestant missions may have affected economic growth in Europe through literacy more than through values per se, values may also matter for development. The devil is in the detail of whichever aspect of religious activity we focus on, like the type of investments conducted or values preached. Moreover, the type of outcome considered does not deliver the same conclusions regarding development. Missionary activity is in general associated with better social capital and education outcomes, but the same cannot always be said for health outcomes, in particular when considering sexually transmitted diseases.


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