Monthly Archives: June 2018

Palm Oil, Rubber, and Colonialism

The Emergence of an Export Cluster: Traders and Palm Oil in Early Twentieth-century Southeast Asia

by Valeria Giacomin (Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in Business History during 2017/2018)

Abstract: Malaysia and Indonesia account for 90 percent of global exports of palm oil, forming one of the largest agricultural clusters in the world. This article uses archival sources to trace how this cluster emerged from the rubber business in the era of British and Dutch colonialism. Specifically, the rise of palm oil in this region was due to three interrelated factors: (1) the institutional environment of the existing rubber cluster; (2) an established community of foreign traders; and (3) a trading hub in Singapore that offered a multitude of advanced services. This analysis stresses the historical dimension of clusters, which has been neglected in the previous management and strategy works, by connecting cluster emergence to the business history of trading firms. The article also extends the current literature on cluster emergence by showing that the rise of this cluster occurred parallel, and intimately related, to the product specialization within international trading houses.

Freely available at Enterprise and Society, Volume 19, Issue 2, June 2018, pp. 272-308

Review by Helena Varkkey (University of Malaya)

In this article, Giacomin presents an archive-based historical analysis of how palm oil became one of the most important traded commodities from Southeast Asia to the world in the early- to mid-1900s. She uses the cluster (defined as a “geographically proximate group of interconnected companies and associated institutions in a particular field, linked by commonalities and complementarities”) approach to explain how the organizational structure of the pre-existing rubber cluster in the Malay peninsula (at the time a British colony) and Sumatra (under the Dutch) formed the basis for an emerging palm oil cluster in the same geographical region.

The first part of her paper focuses on how the regional rubber cluster structure developed. While the literature commonly credits unique local factors in the development of such clusters, Giacomin instead looks at nonlocal factors: (1) mainland Chinese traders that controlled regional trading routes from major Southeast Asian ports and brought in low-skilled tappers and harvesters from surrounding territories, and (2) Western traders that brought in capital inputs (seeds, machinery and finance) and highly-skilled human resources (estate managers and engineers) from Europe and other parts of the Empire and established headquarters in major European trading ports, allowing them to access crucial market information on demand. Both of these foreign merchant communities congregated in the emerging trading hub of Singapore, strategically located in between British Malaya and Dutch Sumatra, and developed a mutual dependency: Chinese contacts were vital for Western traders wanting to run a business in the Eastern colonies, while the Chinese needed Western traders to scale up their region-based commercial activity to a global scope.

The second part of the article explains how palm oil became the “spin-off” crop of the rubber cluster in the region. During the natural rubber boom in the early 1900s, the Malaya-Sumatra rubber cluster became over-dependent on this export and thus over-specialised in terms of existing practises, agronomic knowledge (through R&D agencies like the Rubber Research Institute), and coordinating institutions (eg. the Rubber Growers’ Association). When the advent of synthetic rubber in the 1920s caused natural rubber prices to fall, companies desperately looked to diversify their production to recoup and replace their losses. However, this over-specialisation meant that they could consider only a limited range of crops similar to rubber for diversification. As it happened, the rubber estate structure could be conveniently repurposed for into oil palm estates. Furthermore, the oil palm flourished in a much narrower latitude span compared to rubber, giving confidence to companies that the demand for palm oil would be more sustained since supply would be more limited.
Giacomin concludes that even though the literature often regards over-specialisation as fatal, in the case of the Southeast Asian rubber cluster, this serendipitously led to the emergence of one of the most enduring regional clusters serving the global economy. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia account for over 90% of global palm oil exports.

While the significance of the rubber sector in paving the way for palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia is well known, this paper remains an important and significant addition to the current literature, not only on general business management and strategy, but also more specifically in terms of (1) palm oil expansion and development and (2) agricultural systems (estate vs. smallholdings).

Firstly, the specific role of nonlocal (especially Chinese) entrepreneurs in connecting the production areas in this region to the consumption areas in the West was previously not well understood. In the context of the “global north” and “global south”, palm oil can be considered a uniquely “southern” vegetable oil. Compared to other oils like sunflower, rapeseed, and soya bean, the production, major business players, beneficiaries and direct impacts of palm oil is situated more comparatively in the global south. Giacomin alludes to this in reference to the narrow latitude where oil palm can be grown. This northern/southern framing has coloured much of the recent debates and controversies over palm oil today. This paper’s analysis on the historical role of Chinese merchants is especially useful in further informing the idea of palm oil as a “southern” oil, while at the same time, the equally important role of the Western merchants that Giacomin highlights may be useful in moderating certain northern arguments in this ongoing debate.

Secondly, the historical nature of Giacomin’s analysis of this sector is especially timely in the current period where other regions, like West Africa and Latin America, are looking to increase their global trading share of palm oil. Giacomin mentions that even though the oil palm originated from and was first produced commercially in West Africa during colonial times, Western African territories were unable to effectively penetrate global markets because they did not display the same institutional cohesion across neighbouring territories, something that Southeast Asia managed to do through the pre-existing rubber cluster. This “cluster” model may thus provide an exemplar to be used by emerging palm oil production regions and companies as an effective way to possibly break the current oligopoly (Indonesian and Malaysian firms) which is the palm oil industry. Especially for West Africa, which is considered the current “greenfield” area for palm oil outside Southeast Asia, current strategies can be developed to avoid past mistakes.

Finally, Giacomin’s analysis of early smallholders is useful to inform current discussions on the ideal agricultural systems for oil palm. Her paper argues that in the mid-20th century, the fact that the palm oil was an estate crop (involving high costs and favouring large-scale production) provided a solution to the problem previously faced by rubber companies that were facing competition from and losing market share to rubber smallholdings. While this might have been the case historically, oil palm today has been successfully adapted to the smallholder model in both Indonesia and Malaysia, with a significant share of both countries’ production (about 40% each) coming from either organised or independent smallholders. Giacomin’s analysis stops at the early decolonialisation period, before the newly independent nations began to formulate oil palm smallholder schemes as a strategic tool for rural development and poverty eradication for both countries. Her analysis however can serve as a useful starting point in the ongoing debates on if and how both the estate and smallholder systems can co-exist efficiently and in harmony.

Overall, this paper is a valuable piece of business history that helps to further shed light on a controversial agro-economic sector often shrouded in secrecy. The fact that palm oil continues to be a hot topic worldwide today underlines the relevance and importance of such forays into history to inform the present.

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From VoxEU – Wellbeing inequality in retrospect

A must read – Leandro Prados de la Escosura (databases and open access book on inequality)

The Long Run

Rising trends in GDP per capita are often interpreted as reflecting rising levels of general wellbeing. But GDP per capita is at best a crude proxy for wellbeing, neglecting important qualitative dimensions. 36 more words

via Wellbeing inequality in retrospect — VoxEU.org: Recent Articles

To elaborate further on the topic, Prof. Leandro de la Escosura has made available several databases on inequality, accessible here, as well as a book on long-term Spanish economic growth, available as open source here

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Evaluating the Distinctive Economic Impact of Historical Female Migration in the United States

A Woman’s Touch? Female Migration and Economic Development in the United States

By Viola von Berlepsch (London School of Economics), Andrés Rodríguez-Pose (London School of Economics) and Neil Lee (London School of Economics),

Abstract: Does the economic effect of immigrant women differ from that of immigrants in general? This paper examines if gender has influenced the short- and long-term economic impact of mass migration to the US, using Census microdata from 1880 and 1910. By means of ordinary least squares and instrumental variable estimations, the analysis shows that a greater concentration of immigrant women is significantly associated with lower levels of economic development in US counties. However, immigrant women also shaped economic development positively, albeit indirectly via their children. Communities with more children born to foreign mothers and that successfully managed to integrate female immigrants experienced greater economic growth than those dominated by children of foreign-born fathers or American-born parents.

URL: https://econpapers.repec.org/paper/cprceprdp/12878.htm

Circulated by NEP-HIS on 2018-05-08

Review by Fernando Arteaga (George Mason University)

Summary

What is the economic impact of female migration? The authors seek to answer the inquiry by using the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century as their study case. The goal of the paper is to highlight the distinctiveness of women immigration (compared to that of men), both in the processes that led women to migrate, the characteristics they had, and the places where they finally settled. The main thesis of paper stresses the long-lasting effect women have had; through their family role, as mothers, they facilitated the formation and transmission of social capital, which had a pervasive positive effect on income.

Female migrants in early America tended to settle mainly on urbanized areas in the Northeastern coast – compared to that of male immigrants (who settled mainly in the South and West). The migration levels of women, in absolute terms, were lower, and their marriage rates higher. More importantly, their labor participation rates were low: women tended to stay and work in domestic chores rather than find occupations in the market. These characteristics make female migration distinct to that of men, and motivate the goal of the paper in trying to assess their particular relevance.

 

 

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Figure 1: Immigrant Women in the United States, 1880. By the nature of the variable, counties with a larger share of immigrant women imply a lower share of immigrant men.

 

The text relies on standard econometric analyses, based on intuition and on the literature of migration and culture transmission. The main data sources are the historical censuses of 1880 and 1910, which capture the amount of, male and female foreign-born population residents in each US county (among other data).  The paper presents two base regressions that aim to assess the direct and indirect economic impact of female migration, both in the short and the long term. The first model regresses economic income (GDP per capita by county) on female migration (foreign-born women as a share of the total population in the county). They find that the variables are negatively correlated: lack of labor market participation hindered the female contribution to income. The authors also found that this has had a long term negative effect (income today is also negatively correlated with female migration in late 19th and early 20th century) [1]. To correct for potential biases and to establish a causality linkage that goes strictly from migration to income, and not the other way around, the authors use three different instruments: a) the percentage of married persons; b) the number of persons living in a household; c) the urbanization rate of the county being examined. The first instrument accounts for the fact that female migrants tended to be married in larger shares than the rest of the population. The second accounts for the idea that migrants, especially women, tended to stay with members of their families through their lifetime. The last one maintains that female migrants favored settlement in urbanized zones. The validity of an instrument (marriage percentage, household size and urbanization) hinges upon it being correlated with the dependent variable (income) only by it causing the highlighted mechanism (female migration). The authors do several post-hoc statistical tests to evaluate the instrument’s validity and conclude that it is indeed a valid and strong one. In any case, the instrument variable outcomes do not change the results of the baseline ordinary least squares scenario, they just allow a more robust interpretation of them: it can be said that female migration did have a negative impact on income.

The second model emphasizes the indirect impact of migrant women. Maybe women themselves did not positively contribute to the economic wellbeing of their communities, but they could have done so through other means. The authors refer to the literature that stresses how mothers influence their children behavior and thus have an important role as social capital transmitters (which could positively affect economic wellbeing).  They regress economic income today on the share of children (in 1880 and 1910) born from: 1) a migrant mother and an American-born father; 2) a migrant father and an American mother; 3) both American parents. The standard base of comparison is the share of children that had both parents as immigrants [2].  By definition, the model can only capture the long-term effect of female migrants. The authors find that US counties with an historical larger share of children with migrant mothers are correlated with larger incomes today – in comparison to the other explanatory variables; having American parents is negatively correlated with income today; having a migrant father, and American mother, has a non-significant and null effect on economic outcomes today. The argument, again, rests on the case of social capital transmission: women, as mothers, matter very much.  To corroborate their OLS results they also use an instrumental variable. The authors assume that American-born women that had migrant mothers followed the cultural transmission pattern established by their forebears. They call this the “supply-push” component, which they estimate and use as their instrument. Just as the first model, the instrumental variable inclusion does not modify the basic results, it only permits to talk about causality from migrants in the past to better economic outcomes today.

In conclusion, the paper finds that female immigration, while having a negative direct short-term impact on economic income, has a long-lasting positive effect through the “cultural carrier” channel.

Comment

The paper is a very interesting one, being one of the few studies that aims to disentangle the impact of women as migrants compared to that of men. The results the authors present make intuitive sense. I would like to make just small technical comments based on the variables they use and how they use them.

First, related to the semantics of the concept of “migration.” Migration is normally thought as a flow variable, but here it is used as a stock variable. Given the data they use (measuring migrants as people classified as foreign born in two censuses) the authors cannot measure the impact of migration as a flow, only the impact of it in broad terms. This is not a problem. I just would have liked to see a minor explanation on the paper that clarified the interpretations that we could get out of this. In fact, I think it could explain why they find a negative impact of migrant women in income (if the variables were flows, through migration rates and economic growth, the results may be different).

Second, on a more technical note, I’m skeptic of the instruments being used. Even though the authors argue that they are valid and strong, I remain unconvinced. The authors show that all four of them are correlated with the dependent variable and uncorrelated with the error terms, yet there is almost no explanation, backed up by a narrative, of how exactly these instruments impact on income only through female migration. For each one of the instruments used I could think of other alternate channels by which they could impact income. For example, the use of percentage of marriage by county could indeed be correlated with female migration, but is that the only potential channel? Could it not be that maybe poverty or religion could be impacting income as well?

Lastly, I wish the narrative part could be explained in larger detail. For example, how exactly female migrants in 1880 have a direct impact on income in 2010. Or how exactly children of foreign mothers in 1880 and 1910 could affect income today. It is one thing to say that culture matters, it is another different thing to point how exactly it does. In fact, even though they do mention the pervasiveness of cultural traits through time, they fail to mention that this pervasiveness does not imply ipso facto a good outcome is assured. Sometimes, social capital is also correlated with bad outcomes.

[1] The authors do not provide a concise explanation of why this could be happening: how could a century year old female migration pattern directly impact economic wellbeing today?

[2] All the interpretations of results are in comparison to that baseline.