Saturday, April 3, 2010

Colonisation does not explain modern poverty

Poverty in the developing world is often blamed on colonisation by the great powers of Europe. There is an easy way to test this assumption: compare former colonies with their neighbours that were not colonised.

In Africa this is difficult, as every nation was colonised for at least a brief period. The briefest, however were Liberia and Ethiopia.

Liberia had a strange background, arriving from the desire of abolitionists, African-Americans and white American racists to move some of USA’s growing black population back to Africa. In 1820 the first ship of 88 black emigrants left the US and attempted to found a settlement in Liberia. Over the following decade another 2,638 black Americans made the voyage and, despite clashes with the native Africans, the colony grew and stabilised. From 1842 it was governed by black leaders and in 1847 it became an independent state, winning recognition from numerous Western nations over the next twenty years.

Liberia was not a colony in the usual sense. Its population came from the US, but came to found a new state, not to serve the economic interests of the Americans. Its ruling elite were mixed race, Euro-Africans from the US, and they occasionally fought native African tribes to establish domination. Nonetheless Liberia ruled itself and none of the 19th century great powers controlled it.

Ethiopian history is simpler: it was conquered by Italy in 1935 and liberated in 1941. Of course Ethiopian leaders fought neighbouring African civilisations and internal rebels, but outside those brief years of Italian imperialism Ethiopia was never colonised.

If colonisation is the cause of modern poverty in developing countries, these two should be wealthy and content.

Today Liberia is the fourth poorest country in the world. Ethiopia is the 15th poorest. Liberia’s next door neighbour Cote d’Ivoire has a GDP per capita over three times higher, despite a century of French colonisation. Liberia also has the third highest infant mortality rate in the world, Ethiopia the 18th highest.

In other parts of the world the picture is the same. Ireland, long a colony of Britain, developed wealth greater than most of the European former colonial powers. In Asia, Hong Kong and Singapore became some of the richest regions on earth, while Taiwan and South Korea – victims of brutal Japanese colonialism – have almost caught up with their old imperial enemy. Thailand, never colonised, is now poorer than its southern neighbour Malaysia, after over a hundred years of British rule there.

A nation’s status as a former colony is an extremely poor indicator of wealth or health today. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is by comparing former colonies in the same region and under the same colonial power that have seen massive economic divergence since independence.

The first example is North and South Korea. Both were colonised by Japan, both emerged from a bloody civil war as very poor countries, with life expectancies of 47 (South Korea) and 49 (North Korea) in 1950: around the same as Latin American countries. Their shattered economies put their wealth per person around the same as Chad, Sri Lanka and Tunisia.

By 2007 South Korea had a life expectancy of 79, higher than the US, and wealth almost the same as New Zealand. North Korea, after decades of growth, had stagnated and then collapsed: life expectancy of 67 and wealth somewhere between Bangladesh and Senegal.

This divergence cannot be blamed on colonialism.

Another example compares Botswana with neighbouring Zimbabwe. Both were colonised by the British, both gained independence in the 1960s. In 1965 they both had life expectancies of 53 years. Zimbabwe was, however, the poorer of the colonies, with a GDP per capita about half that of Botswana.

Over the next few decades AIDS caused havoc in both countries. Botswana’s life expectancy dropped to 51 by 2007, Zimbabwe was down to 43. Their economic destinies, however, show rapid divergence.

1965 GDP per capita (in inflation-adjusted US dollars)
Zimbabwe: $552
Botswana: $1,034

2007 GDP per capita (in inflation-adjusted US dollars)
Zimbabwe: $479
Botswana: $12,401

Zimbabwe collapsed and is poorer today than it was when it gained independence. Botswana, on the other hand, developed a stable democratic government and a highly successful economy. It is today about as wealthy as Malaysia, Russia, Mexico or Romania.

That different kinds of colonisation had impacts on the colonised countries is natural, but the extent of that impact is not. Historical colonisation cannot be used as an excuse to explain the poor performance of modern economies – it simply doesn’t matter much.


  1. I should note that -- I've been told by people of Taiwanese descent, if nothing else -- that Japanese colonial rule over Taiwan was relatively light and that the island has closer ties to Japan than to mainland China, both in terms of political warmth and in cultural mimicry (importing fashion, manga, etc.) Other than that, a thoughtful and well-supported argument.

    A number of confounding factors that come to mind in the matter include the manner in which colonizing powers left the nations, who came to power in the vacuum, and what internal and external pressures those governments were faced with. Thoughts?

  2. Thanks Confanity, I'm sure that's part of it indeed.

    For me, looking at this issue over the years I was confused by the vague assumption that wealth is the default: every culture is at least a bit wealthy unless robbed by their neighbour.

    Now I think poverty is the default: every culture is poor, reliant on favourable weather to provide enough food to make it through winter, without modern technology and modern economic systems. For all the selfish intention of colonial powers, many also boasted about introducing "civilisation" to the Africans and Asians. Of course this was a violent and arrogant destruction of native cultures. But perhaps in some places, where it was successful, it did actually work. That is, primitive cultures were destroyed and replaced by high technology cultures capable of growing and competing in the global market.

    It's all quite politically incorrect to say the old imperialists might actually be responsible for wealth in today's former colonies! But perhaps it had a role in some places.

    No doubt different colonial powers had different outcomes too - the Belgian Congo was supposed to have been especially brutal and the region is very, very poor today.

  3. very good article Shane, very interesting read.

    '...It's all quite politically incorrect to say the old imperialists might actually be responsible for wealth in today's former colonies! But perhaps it had a role in some places...' - well said, just because an idea is distasteful does not mean it is untrue. As usual I am against P.C. for stamping down on honest debate. K.

  4. '...the island has closer ties to Japan than to mainland China, both in terms of political warmth and in cultural mimicry (importing fashion, manga, etc.)...' please excuse my ignorance here Confanity if I am wrong, but does Taiwan not have closer relations to Japan than to China simply because: most modern Taiwanese are decendants of Chinese nationalists who lost the war against the Chinese communists, who hold the mainland. Relations between Taiwan and China seem very tense, very much like a cold war as the differences between the two have not been resolved; whereas the problems with Japan are very much in the past now it seems. K.

  5. it is interesting that in India,a lot of our troubles were blamed on colonization,for example in 1947,we had a literacy of 18% and life expectancy of 35,now both figures are above 65,however the focus of discourse has shifted from the negative impact of colonization to the opportunities missed during the era of socialism,now the idea is that the british are responsible for what they did during their rule,but we are responsible for the choices we have made after that.

  6. Interesting Rohan. Actually Gapminder helped clear this up for me. I grew up with a vague sense that British colonial rule had RUINED Ireland - yet by independence in 1922 Ireland was apparently one of the richest countries in the entire WORLD!


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