Category Archives: Africa

Black Living Standards in South Africa before Democracy

Black Living Standards in South Africa before Democracy: New Evidence From Heights

By: Bokang Mpeta (Stellenbosch University), Johan Fourie (Stellenbosch University) and Kris Inwood (University of Guelph)

Abstract: Very little income or wage data was systematically recorded on the living standards of South Africa’s black majority during much of the twentieth century. This paper uses four data sets to document, for the first time, an alternative measure of living standards: the stature of black South Africans over the course of the twentieth century. We find evidence to suggest that the first three decades of the century were particularly bad, perhaps due to the increasingly repressive labour policies in urban areas and famine and land expropriation that weighted especially heavily on the Basotho. The decade following South Africa’s departure from the gold standard, a higher international gold price and the demand for manufactured goods from South Africa due to the Second World War seem to have benefited both black and white South Africans. The data also allow us to disaggregate by ethnicity within the black population group, revealing levels of inequality within race group that has been neglected in the literature. Finally, we compare black and white living standards, revealing the large and widening levels of inequality that characterised twentieth-century South Africa.

URL: https://econpapers.repec.org/paper/rzawpaper/670.htm

Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-10-15

Review by: Gregori Galofré-Vilà (University of Bocconi and University of Oxford)

Almost forty years ago, a group of historians led by Robert Fogel began to explore the potential of anthropometric measurements for answering a range of historical questions, largely, but not limited to, those concerning health and wellbeing (Fogel et al. 1978). Although around 80% of the main variation in individual height may be genetic, it has long been recognised that variations in the mean heights of different groups of people owe much to economic, social, and environmental circumstances.

Since the early efforts of Robert Fogel, anthropometric data contributed to long-standing debates such as the health of slaves in the US South (Steckel 1977) and the living standards during the British Industrial Revolution (Floud et al. 1990). Meanwhile many historians began to explore the development of height in many countries. For instance, Komlos (1985) began the collection of data for the Habsburg Empire, Martínez-Carrión (1986) for Spain and Sandberg and Steckel (1987) for Sweden, just to name a few. For a recent review of the height literature see Galofré-Vilà (2018).

Perhaps, the most interesting discovery until now, as commented by Floud et al. in The Changing Body (2011) and Deaton in The Great Escape (2016), is that since the 1850s, or over the course of some 6-7 generations, heights in Europe and North America have progressed into previously uncharted territories. For instance, Dutch men, being today the tallest in the world, grew from 166.5 to 182.7 (or 1.2 cm per decade). Better diets, sanitary reforms, lower frequency of sickness and shorter workdays are also reflected in terms of longevity, and during the same period Dutch life expectancy grew from 36.6 to 77.8 (or 2.8 years per decade).

However, in less wealthy parts of the world these improvements have been less important –if we can talk in terms of improvements at all. For instance, Guntupalli (2007) showed that Indian heights increased from 163.2 cm to 165.1 cm between the 1910s and 1980s (or 0.3 cm per decade) and Moradi et al. (2013) found that heights in Ashanti (Ghana) increased from 167.7 cm to 168.8 cm (or 0.6 cm per decade). Indeed, today life expectancy in developing countries is clearly below Western standards (in 2014 life expectancy in India was 68 years and 61 in Ghana).

In a very interesting paper, Bokang Mpeta, Johan Fourie and Kris Inwood (2017) take advantage of height records to chart, for the first time, the living standards of black South Africans between the 1890s and the 1990s. They addressed three questions: (1) Were poor black living standards a result of apartheid-era polices, or did they worsen even before South Africa’s most infamous era? (2) When did white and black living standards diverge? and (3) Can we explain the level and trend within the black population over the twentieth century? As the authors point out, the height data here are especially helpful as data on more conventional or modern indicators are lacking.

Similar to the less wealthy parts of the world, they found that the height of black South Africans improved little across the twentieth century (1.3 cm between 1895 and 1985 or 0.1 cm per decade). Indeed, as Figure 1 shows, they discovered that between the 1890s and 1910s heights declined from nearly 168 cm to 167 cm and linked this decline to the white repression and regulations of land expropriation (for instance, the 1913 Native Land Act was particularly painful as it banned the ownership of land by the black population). They also stressed some negative effects of extractive institutions following the discovery of diamonds in Kimberly in 1867 and gold mines in Johannesburg in 1886.

Figure 1: Height development of black South Africans between 1895 and 1990. Source: Mpeta, Fourie, Inwood (2017).

Yet, it seems that a reversal occurred when South Africa left the Gold Standard (in December 1932) and, due to the increases in the international price of gold, the prospects of employment for black people rapidly improved, with heights increasing from 167 cm to 168 cm during the 1930s and 1940s. Feinstein (2005) also observed that the Second World War created a powerful stimulus to local industries and gold mining, creating opportunities for many to sell goods abroad. However, this short-lived period of improvement somewhat slowed down after the 1950s, reaching 168.5 cm in the 1970s and followed the electoral victory of the National Party in 1948. The apartheid and new institutional reforms such as the 1959 Promotion of Black Self-Government Act (which among other things abolished parliamentary representation for Blacks) seem also to have worsened black living standards.

There are also additional interesting features of the paper. Black males born towards the end of apartheid were nearly 7 cm shorter than white males. However, this might not be surprising because, as the authors explain, infant mortality in the Cape Colony was two times higher for black Africans and the wages paid to white miners were almost eight times higher than those paid to black miners. They also find differences in height by nearly 2 cm between black ethnicities.

As seen in Figure 1 above, in order to have sufficient data to cover a century, the authors use four separate sets of data. First, the heights of men who joined the South African Army between 1940 and 1945 (and born between 1890 and 1922). Second, the heights derived from dead bodies deposited in regional hospitals of South Africa that were unclaimed (with birth years estimated between 1897 and 1980). Finally, the height data compiled in two modern health surveys: the 1998 South African Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) and the 2008 National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS). As the authors point out at different points in the paper, all these sources potentially carry different issues of selection and representativeness. For instance, there is almost no information on who these 500 dead men were and whose bodies were unclaimed. Indeed, this is a rather limited dataset with, on average, 6 men for each birth year. Meanwhile, medical surveys such as the DHS are based on men who were in a household at the time of the interview and married to a woman aged 15-49 (with single men neglected from the survey). Indeed, the differences between these two overlapping surveys after 1960 are rather curious.

The first sample, the military one, is perhaps the most controversial in light of recent papers from Bodenhorn, Guinnane and Mroz (2017) about sample selection bias. In a nutshell, these authors highlight the idea that height records coming from voluntary armies can be a biased sample of the underlying population because varying conditions of the economy and trade brought forward, at different times, recruits from different social classes. Mpeta, Fourie and Inwood (2017) seem rather confident that sample selection is not a concern here because heights and wages moved together and unemployment was rather low in the 1940s. Yet, Bodenhorn et al.’s argument requires the data to have been derived from men who were recruited over a relatively long period of time and Mpeta et al.’s black time-trends between 1895 and 1920 are derived from a shorter period of recruitment (1940-1945). Here, it would be interesting to know more about differences in economic conditions within that short-period of rapid economic growth and social change.

Indeed, the decline in black living standards seen between 1895 and 1920 is not universally accepted. For instance, in Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) observe that “the development of the mining economy and the expansion of European settlement had other implications for the development of the area. Most notably, they generated demand for food and other agricultural products and created new economic opportunities for native Africans both in agriculture and trade”; at least, as the authors explain, until 1913 with the Native Land Act. The decline in stature found between the 1890s and 1910s might also be explained by the composition of age in the sample. Whenever we seek to derive time-trends from samples of army recruits who were recruited over relatively short periods of time, the time-trends appear to show a decline. This raises a question about the extent to which men who join the army at older ages are as representative of their birth cohorts as men who join at younger ages.
Despite these and other comments, and the limitation of data to pursue further econometric analysis, for now, we should be really grateful to the authors for charting a new African country in the height literature and for providing new material to ponder.

Acknowledgements

I thank María Gómez-León and Bernard Harris for valuable comments on a first draft of the column.

List of references

Acemoglu, D., J. Robinson. 2012. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. New York: Crown Business.

Bodenhorn, H., T. W. Guinnane, and T. A. Mroz, “Sample-Selection Biases and the Industrialization Puzzle,” Journal of Economic History, 77(1), 171-207.

Deaton, A. 2013. The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. Princeton University Press.

Feinstein, C.H. 2005. An Economic History of South Africa. Conquest, Discrimination and Development. Cambridge University Press.

Floud, R., K. W. Wachter, and A. Gregory. 1990. Height, Health and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980 (Cambridge University Press).

Floud, R., R. W. Fogel, B. Harris, and S. C. Hong. 2011. The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World since 1700. Cambridge University Press.

Fogel, R. W., S. Engerman, J. Trussell, R. Floud, and C. L. Pope. 1978. “The Economics of Mortality in North America, 1650-1910: A Description of a Research Project,” Historical Methods 11:2, 75-108.

Galofré-Vilà, G. 2018. “Growth and Maturity: A Quantitative Systematic Review and Network Analysis in Anthropometric History,” Economics and Human Biology 28, 107-118.

Guntupalli, A. M. 2007, Anthropometric Evidence of Indian Welfare and Inequality in the 20th century, Doctoral diss., Tübingen University.

Komlos, J. 1985. “Stature and Nutrition in the Habsburg Monarchy: The Standard of Living and Economic Development in the Eighteenth century,” The American Historical Review 90:5, 1149-1161.

Martínez-Carrión, J. M. 1986. “Estatura, nutrición y nivel de vida en Murcia, 1860-1930,” Revista de Historia Económica – Journal of Iberian and Latin American Economic History 4:1, 67-97.

Moradi, A., Austin, G., Baten, J. 2013. “Heights and Development in a Cash‐Crop Colony: Living Standards in Ghana, 1870‐1980,” unpublished manuscript.

Mpeta, B., Fourie, J., and Inwood, K. 2017. “Black Living Standards in South Africa before Democracy: New Evidence from Heights,” Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers 10/2017.

Sandberg, L. G., and R. H. Steckel. 1987. “Heights and Economic History: the Swedish case,” Annals of Human Biology 14:2, 101-110.

Steckel, R. H. 1977. The Economics of U.S. Slave and Southern White Fertility. Doctoral diss., University of Chicago.

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A Farewell to Arms? The Consequences of Warfare in Sub-Sahara Africa

Is Africa Different? Historical Conflict and State Development

by

Mark Dincecco (University of Michigan dincecco@umich.edu)

James Fenske (University of Oxford james.fenske@economics.ox.ac.uk)

Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato (IMT Institute for Advanced Studies Lucca massimiliano.onorato@imtlucca.it)

ABSTRACT: We show that the consequences of historical warfare for state development differ for Sub-Saharan Africa. We identify the locations of more than 1,500 conflicts in Africa, Asia, and Europe from 1400 to 1799. We find that historical warfare predicts common-interest states defined by high fiscal capacity and low civil conflict across much of the Old World. For Sub-Saharan Africa, historical warfare predicts special-interest states defined by high fiscal capacity and high civil conflict. Our results offer new evidence about where and when war makes states.

URL:  http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:ial:wpaper:8/2015&r=all

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-09-05
 

Review by Anna Missiaia

 
The consequences of war on the development of nations have been gaining increasing attention in both Economics and Economic History alike. This paper by Dincecco, Frenske and Onorato, distributed on NEP-HIS on 2015-09-05 studies the consequences of wars on state development for Sub-Saharan Africa.

The paper refers to a rather large body of research developed within the field of Political Economics. The standard account, mostly focused on the European experience, predicts that the rise of warfare will lead, after the end of a conflict, to greater fiscal capacity and less civil conflict. The mechanism was first studied for Europe in the period 1500-1800 by Tilly (1993). Rulers generally had little political consequences from defeats, at least until the early 1800s, when Napoleon started replacing monarchs who had lost wars. Before then, wars were a quite regular phenomenon. Wars led to the expansion of the sources of taxations which was easily maintained in peace time. This enabled European states to enforce internal security more effectively, lowering civil conflict. The major implication of this perspective is that countries that experienced more wars in the past, today show greater fiscal capacity and less civil conflict (Fearon and Laiting, 2014; Besley and Persson, 2015).

As noted existing research focuses on Europe, so it is interesting to see that Dincecco, Frenske and Onorato (DFO) find different results when applying the same premises to Sub-Saharan Africa.  The paper by DFO begins by presenting two opposing views. On the one hand, there is evidence that the standard account of more wars in the past lead to greater fiscal capacity and less conflict today also applies to Sub-Sahara Africa. Specifically Michalopoulos and Papaioannou (2013) document evidence suggesting that more conflicts lead to more state centralization. Meanwhile that of Bates (2014) suggests that more centralized states are the most developed in the African continent. On the other hand, the opposing view focuses on a series of characteristics of the Sub-Saharan region (such as slave trade and colonization) that are responsible for the failure by the standard account to explain the trajectory of African states.

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The Battle of Rocroi, by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau.

The paper by DFO takes a comparative approach, testing the relationship between historical warfare and state development in several continents. The empirical strategy is rather intuitive, taking four measure of fiscal capacity of states today and regressing them on the number of conflicts that affected each region. They include a set of standard controls (latitude, population density, arable land and so on) and also continental fixed effects.  The same procedure is then repeated for three measure of civil conflict today.

The first result is that fiscal capacity today does increase in all continents for countries that experienced more wars in the past. Sub-Sahara Africa makes no exception here. The second result deals with civil conflict and this is different. Here, unlike the other continents, Sub-Sahara Africa shows a positive correlation between historical warfare and civil conflict today.

DFO are well aware of the possible shortcomings of their strategy, which are shared with virtually all works trying to address outcomes today caused by institutional arrangements from the past (one above all, Acemoglu et al. 2005). Dincecco and coauthors provide a comprehensive list of robustness checks by adding further observable controls. They also acknowledge that in spite of these controls, unobservable characteristics related to both historical warfare and present state development might still bias their results. They apply a quite interesting methodology to give an idea of the potential bias: they provide a measure, used by authors like Nunn and Wantchekon (2011), that estimates how much greater the impact of unobservable variables should be, relative to the observable, to explain the variation in the data. The result is that unobservable variables would need to have a nearly 20 times stronger impact to explain the variation in the sample. This result of course does not rule out that some of these variables have a role, but it ensure us that a fair amount of the explanatory power lies in the observable variables. Another remarkable feature of the paper by DFO is that it addresses the issue of the time span between the dependent and the explanatory variables. This is in a way a structural issue of all this branch of research, but it is always reassuring to see authors taking it into account. They do so by running the model with intermediate outcomes (around the beginning of the 20th century) and showing that these two showed a similar pattern to today’s.

npoystory03_01

Somalia’s 1991 civil war

DFO also provide a tentative explanation to why states in Sub-Sahara Africa might behave differently than Europeans. DFO do so by including measures of democratization, ethnic fractionalization and social trust as controls in the regression. They add these one by one, looking at the effect of these controls on the magnitude of the coefficients of interest. The only control here that seems to have an effect on the coefficients is social trust. However, the authors interpret the result with caution because of the small sample size (here only Sub-Sahara Africa is included, lowering the number of observations to only 47).

Regarding the use of measure of social trust to explain the relationship between warfare and fiscal capacity/civil conflict today, I would also be worried about two other points: firstly, the measure of social trust is based on a survey from relatively recent times (1980s onward) while the relationship tested is between historical warfare and fiscal capacity/civil conflict today; secondly, this measure could be highly collinear with the variables considered (of course, the usual caveats on reverse causality that are typical in this line of research also apply here).

To conclude, the paper by DFO contributes to both the debate within Political Economics by quantitatively testing a well-established narrative on a region of the world that is very different from the standard one used in the past (meaning empirical studies based on Europe). By doing so, it does find that Sub-Sahara Africa experienced a different dynamic that led to a different outcome today. It also shows a very careful work on the data used and it addresses several sources of criticism. A possible next step could be to take further the analysis of the mechanism behind through which war impacts state development.

Bibliography

Acemoglu, D., , S. Johnson and J. Robinson (2001). “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation.” American Economic Review, 91: 1369-1401.

Bates, R. (2014). “The Imperial Peace,” in E. Akyeampong, R. Bates, N. Nunn, and J. Robinson, eds., Africa’s Development in Historical Perspective, pp. 424-46, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Besley, T. and T. Persson (2015). “State Capacity, Institutions, and Development.” The Political Economist Newsletter.

Fearon, J. and D. Laitin (2014). “Does Contemporary Armed Conflict Have Deep Historical Roots?” Working paper, Stanford University.

Michalopoulos, S. and E. Papaioannou (2011). “The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa.” NBER Working Paper 17620.

Nunn, N. and L. Wantchekon (2011). “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa.” American Economic Review, 101: 3221-52.

Tilly, C. (1992). Coercion, Capital, and European States, 990-1992. Cambridge: Blackwell

 

Coming back to @PostOffice #Savings? The #east-west comparative.

Postal financial services, development and inclusion: Building on the past and looking to the future

By

Gonzales d’Alcantara (gonzales.dalcantara@ua.ac.be) Emeritus Professor of Econometrics at the University of Antwerp and d’Alcantara Economic Consulting

Paul H. Dembinski (pawel.dembinski@unifr.ch ) University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Odile Pilley, (odile.pilley@blueyonder.co.uk) International Consultant, formerly with International Bureau of the Universal Postal Union

Abstract: Post offices, inherited from the Industrial Revolution, were monolithic telephone and postal administrations. They were intimately linked to the fabric of nations and made significant contributions to state finances. From the 1960s onwards, integrators, such as UPS and FEDEX, started offering end-to-end express services, thus challenging the postal monopoly in new high added value services. Gradually, the liberalization paradigm gained ground. Telecommunications and sometimes financial services were spun off from postal operations. More recently, new policies and priorities started to emerge especially on the development agenda where financial inclusion has become a top priority in the developing world. The question to be addressed is which role, if any, the posts play or could play in ensuring inclusion. Despite an exceptionally scarce research in the field, this paper provides an overview of how these shifts in paradigm have affected postal policy, the postal financial services regulatory framework, the status of the organizations delivering those services and the offerings themselves in developing as well as in developed countries. After a research review, including the regulatory dimension, the paper focuses on how postal financial services institutions in their legal framework have developed bringing to the fore a panorama of a dozen of promising transformations of financial postal services in developing countries.

URL http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:fri:fribow:fribow00451

Review by Mark Crowley

This paper by d’Alcantara, Dembinski and Pilley was circulated byNEP-HIS on 2014-09-12. The approach is unique in the sense that it seeks to compare the nature of Post Offices in Europe and the developing world, focusing primarily on their role in the savings movement. Its historical approach shows how the western Post Offices developed as a movement that sought to encourage thrift among a profligate working class, whereas in the developing world, the development of a Postal Savings movement was more in line with the growing financial markets across these nations, and the desire for individual customers to express choice in their banking processes. Moreover, it effectively shows how, following a crisis in trust experienced in the banking industry, more people across both the developed and developing world are turning to the government-backed Post Office as a safe haven for their savings in response to the perceived dangers of investing in private banks.

Summary

Citing the latter nineteenth century as the beginning of the Post Office savings movement, with British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s initiative to open a Post Office Savings Bank, this paper demonstrates that the influence of the government over consumer spending has long roots. The authors deftly show that certainly in its embryonic stages, the Post Office savings movement in developed countries focused on the provision of a secure place for working-class savings, while also encouraging thrift. Building on the lack of trust displayed by the working-class towards other alternatives, such as friendly societies, and their exclusion from private sector banks, the savings option offered by Post Offices had fertile ground on which it could flourish.              
 
gladstone 2

The paper also documents the differences between the supervisory natures of the Post Office Savings activities in developing countries, comparing them to that in the developed world. Citing the Asian and Latin American examples, the authors show that the levels of government control over the activities of postal savings banks were significantly more than that in the developed world, with the respective central banks exerting a supervisory role over postal and financial affairs. In the developed world, following with the liberalisation of financial services, the level of central government control over deposits made in postal savings banks has significantly diminished, with initiatives to delegate the administration of post office banking activity to private banks. Although responsibility is still being underwritten by central government (with Bank of Ireland UK as the example for postal savings in the UK) the level of micro-management previously present has now diminished.

d’Alcantara, Dembinski and Pilley also document the necessity of a world legal framework and understanding to evolve with the growing influence of the postal savings movement, especially in the developed world. Citing the aim for legal and financial autonomy to be awarded to postal savings institutions as part of the United Nations millennium goals, it effectively demonstrates the challenges that both the developed and the developing world face in terms of striking the right balance to facilitate the effective supervision of the financial system at a time when the role of private investment banks have been criticised for their excessive risk taking. While many countries in the west still pride themselves on liberal nature of their governments and markets, the definition of this is likely to change in the name of ensuring proportionality and responsibility concerning financial affairs in an age when consumer confidence in private banks is at an all-time low.

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While seeking to emphasise the differences between the postal savings movement in the developed and developing world, this paper also draws on examples of convergence. In the period after the 2008 world financial crisis, there has been evidence that consumers, once more, have come back to the government-backed Post Office savings banks in response to not only their anger about the actions of private banks, but also the perception that government-backed savings institutions are safer in terms of securing deposits during periods of financial crisis. For example, in 2008, much resentment was created in the UK when the government bailed out banks deemed “too big to fail”, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds. While such action ensured that the deposits of savers were guaranteed, many responded angrily that taxpayer’s money was being used to save banks that had shown financial irresponsibility on such a grand scale.

post office uk

The paper ends on an optimistic note for the savings movement in Asia, with particular reference to China. In noting that the Chinese Postal Savings Bank is the fourth largest in China, with its customer base expanding beyond the traditional labouring classes to include students and businesspeople, the authors argue that this has been a triumph for the postal savings movement in the world’s most populous country. While it is worth noting that the level of central government control over all banks in China is possibly significantly more than in any other developed nation, it is a point well made that in a country with a flourishing middle class population, it is the postal savings movement that seems to be gaining the biggest traction.

posb china

Critique

d’Alcantara, Dembinski and Pilley covered a huge chronological and geographical period in their analysis, and have effectively compared the nature of the postal savings movement in the developed and developing world. Perhaps an area that could be explored further is the western government’s ideas of financial liberalisation as a principle that stops short of a full-scale privatisation of Post Office counters (which include financial services)? For example, Margaret Thatcher, despite pursuing a very ambitious privatisation programme in the 1980s, stopped short of privatising Post Office counters, despite taking steps to remove the ‘Giro’ from government control. Deeming the issue to be too much of a political hot potato, Thatcher left financial services at the Post Office largely untouched, encouraging only the intervention of private banks to compete for the option of underwriting (with the support of government) Post Office financial services. Today, both in the US and the UK, Post Office counters, and individual postmasters complain vehemently about their struggle for survival in the face of growing competition from private banks that now include the offers of financial services by supermarkets, and initiatives that have reduced the numerous functions of Post Office counters, including direct debit payments. Perhaps the question the authors could explore is why do western governments, while taking efforts to remove services from the Post Offices (such as bill payments) do not embark on a full scale privatisation, whereas in developing countries, where the extent of government control over the savings movement, including postal savings, is significantly stronger, the movement appears to be going from strength to strength?

Further Reading

Booth, Alan and Mark Billings, ‘Techno-nationalism, the Post Office and the creation of Britain’s National Giro’ in B Bátiz-Lazo, J.C. Maixé-Altés and P. Thomes Technological Innovation in Retail Finance: International Historical Perspectives (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011).

Campbell-Kelly, Martin, ‘Data Processing and Technological Change’ Technology and Culture, 39, 1 (Jan. 1998), pp. 1-32.

Campbell Smith, Duncan, Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of Royal Mail (London: Penguin, 2011).

Crowley, Mark J. Saving for the Nation: The Post Office and National Consumerism, c1860-1945’ in Erika Rappaport, Sandra Dawson and Mark J Crowley (eds.), Consuming Behaviours: Identity, Politics and Pleasure in Twentieth Century Britain (forthcoming Bloomsbury, 2015).

Slavery and the Modern World

The transatlantic slave trade and the evolution of political authority in West Africa

by: Warren C. Whatley (wwhatley@umich.edu)

Abstract:

I trace the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on the evolution of political authority in West Africa. I present econometric evidence showing that the trans-Atlantic slave trade increased absolutism in pre-colonial West Africa by approximately 17% to 35%, while reducing democracy and liberalism. I argue that this slavery-induced absolutism also influenced the structure of African political institutions in the colonial era and beyond. I present aggregate evidence showing that British colonies that exported more slaves in the era of the slave trade were ruled more-indirectly by colonial administrations. I argue that indirect colonial rule relied on sub-national absolutisms to control populations and extract surplus, and in the process transformed absolutist political customs into rule of law. The post-colonial federal authority, like the colonial authority before it, lacked the administrative apparatus and political clout to integrate these local authorities, even when they wanted to. From this perspective, state-failure in West Africa may be rooted in a political and economic history that is unique to Africa in many respects, a history that dates at least as far back as the era of the transatlantic slave trade.

URL: EconPapers: Africahttp://econpapers.repec.org/paper/pramprapa/44932.htm

Review by Stephanie Decker

Last Sunday 12 Years a Slave (2013) won best picture at the Oscars ceremony. A timely reminder that slavery remains a subject of contemporary relevance. But researchers have also been concerned with the long-term impact of slavery on the modern world, with some, like Bill Cooke (2003), arguing that ante-bellum plantation slavery was one of the earliest instances of modern management. If you are wondering why people draw this parallel, have a look at this infographic: 

Spot the difference: slave owners and modern managers. Source: http://www.topmanagementdegrees.com/slave-management/

The careful management of slavery and the slave trade meant that slavery produced a large number of records, and in particular, statistically relevant material. But these figures are often sketchy and frequently problematic to assess Africa’s economic development. This remains a problem even for twentieth century quantitative sources as Morten Jerven has shown in his recent book Poor Numbers (2013).

Notwithstanding the inherent difficulties of using statistics for African history, Warren Whatley’s working paper (distributed in a special issue of Nep-His on 2013-11-07) contributes to a growing literature in economic history which seeks to show the effects of an historical event (loosely defined) on the institutional development of a region. The main assumption underlying this research is “path dependence”, and that these “initial conditions” determine subsequent institutional weaknesses which in turn affect economic development. Inspired by the influential work of Acemoglu, Johnson & Robinson (AJR) on the colonial origins of institutions (2001) and the reversal of fortunes (2002), a new line of research was developed by Nathan Nunn (2008, 2009) on the impact of the slave trade on the long-term determinants of economic development. Warren Whatley’s paper takes a slightly different approach to the literature, but this paper develops a similar argument.

Overall, when Africa’s poor long-run economic performance is attributed to its institutional weaknesses, there are, broadly speaking , three major explanations. AJR (2001) famously argued that the imposition of colonialism, which was a form of conquest and thus an illegitimate form of rule, created extractive institutions in non-settler colonies. However, Gareth Austin (2008) has also pointed out that it is not that easy to label all non-settler colony institutional frameworks as purely extractive, e.g. in West African peasant agriculture. An alternative explanation is of course that it was not so much colonial institutions that were extractive, but the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is hard to argue with the essentially extractive nature of enslavement, but the question is whether it had a long-term effect.

Statistics on African development are often flawed even for twentieth century historical data

The third explanation is labour scarcity (Hopkins, 1973; Austin, 2008), which Whatley seems to find compelling, but links to the slave trade as an economic shock in a way that is hard to follow. Confusingly, he suggests that the slave trade would provide evidence for the labour scarcity hypothesis, but evades the question of whether the slave trade created labour scarcity (which he appears to be saying on p. 4) or whether it exacerbated it to the point of being a major economic shock (more likely in my view). As he also evades the question of why a territory chooses to export a crucial resource that is already scarce, Because if labour was already scarce but was exported nevertheless, one could argue that political institutions were already dysfunctional before the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Not only does the working paper claim to show that slave exports are a better explanation of cross-sectional variation than environmentally induced labour scarcity (p. 4), but that is also shows that the slave trade caused the spread  of absolutism (i.e. authoritarian political systems, p. 6). It is questionable whether cross-sectional data can be used as evidence of a process that took place over a period of time (more than a century, in this case).  This snap-shot of one point in time also does not appear suitable to prove causality, only correlations (p. 12). It is equally plausible that predatory states facilitated the slave trade, an argument that is easily supported by the geographic distribution of specific slave ports.

But causality becomes a really thorny issue with claims such as: “British colonies that exported more slaves were ruled more indirectly by colonial administrations (p. 6).” While in itself a nonsensical statement (slave trade and indirect rule in formal British colonies did not co-exist in time), it is based on the argument that slavery-induced institutions persisted throughout the colonial era and beyond. Nowhere in the paper is this demonstrated convincingly, and the evidence and analysis in figure 2 that supposedly support this claim are deeply anachronistic.

Figure 2 tries to show that the impact of the slave trade continued its influence throughout the colonial period, by linking slave exports to indirect rule (with post-colonial states as the unit of analysis – why not use colonial states?). The slave trade peaked in the eighteenth century, while indirect rule was only developed in the late nineteenth century and continued into the first half of the twentieth century. Post-colonial states (the unit of analysis) were created in the latter part of the twentieth century, and were often criticised for their total lack of connection to pre-colonial polities. These phenomena were not co-existing, and unless one assumes that an institutional framework that had its inception during the slave trade carried through colonialism into independent states, it really makes no sense connecting two sets of data separated by a century via a unit of analysis that did not even exist until much later still.  The argument of the paper is to prove that the slave trade had a long run historical legacy because of institutional inertia and path dependence, but figure 2 does not prove this, and instead just assumes this to be true without considering alternative explanations.

Labour scarcity due to environmental constraints is a far more straightforward explanation, and pretty much spans the entire time period under consideration. It is quite simply the most parsimonious argument, as it does not require any postulated mechanism that carries the institutional shock of the slave trade through colonialism into the post-colonial period. That seems to take the cause-effect relation seriously, whereas this “causal history” simply presents logical tautologies by equating institutions with historical legacies (p. 6), thus making the mechanism (institutions) the same as the effect (long-run historical legacies). And suddenly causation in history seems no longer that complicated.

In summary, I have two major issues with this research: firstly how “causal” history understands institutions (making it both the explanation and what is to be explained), and secondly how the evolution of institutions (diachronic) is supposedly tested by cross-sectional data (synchronic). Causal history in fact dispenses with history and substitutes it with path dependence. But this kind of institutional history has very little to say about why and how institutions change. This is an area in which history could make a real contribution, but not if institutions are reduced to static phenomena. Claims such as that “the political structure of many post-colonial nation-states in Africa is rooted in a political history that […] stretched […] back [to] the era of the transatlantic slave trade” are obviously appealing but remain difficult to prove.

References

Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S. & Robinson, J.A. (2001). “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation.” The American Economic Review 91(5): 1369-1401.

Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S. & Robinson, J.A. (2002). “Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 117(4): 1231-1294.

Austin, G. (2008). “The ‘reversal of fortune’ thesis and the compression of history: Perspectives from African and comparative economic history.” Journal of International Development 20: 996–1027.

Cooke, B. (2003). “The Denial of Slavery in Management Studies.” Journal of Management Studies 40(8): 1895-1918.

Hopkins, A.G. (1973). An Economic History of West Africa, London: Longman.

Jerven, M. (2013). Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It, Cornell Studies in Political Economy, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Nunn, N. (2008). “The Long-Term Effects of the African Slave Trades.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 123(1): 139-176.

Nunn, N., Wantchekon L. (forthcoming). “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa.” The American Economic Review.

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Brit Steve McQueen becomes first black director to win Best Picture for “12 Years a Slave”. Source: The Independent (2014-3-3 http://ow.ly/uaRZF)