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The 'reversal of fortune' thesis and the compression of history: Perspectives from African and comparative economic history


  • Gareth Austin

    (Reader in Economic History, London School of Economics, UK)


Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson have dramatically challenged the tendency of economists to confine their empirical search for the causes of economic growth to the recent past. They argue that the kind of institutions established by European colonialists, either protecting private property or extracting rents, resulted in the poorer parts of the pre-colonial world becoming some of the richest economies of today; while transforming some of the more prosperous parts of the non-European world of 1500 into the poorest economies today. This view has been further elaborated for Africa by Nunn, with reference to slave trading. Drawing on African and comparative economic historiography, the present paper endorses the importance of examining growth theories against long-term history: revealing relationships that recur because the situations are similar, as well as because of path dependence as such. But it also argues that the causal relationships involved are more differentiated than is recognised in AJR's formulations. By compressing different historical periods and paths, the 'reversal' thesis over-simplifies the causation. Relatively low labour productivity was a premise of the external slave trades; though the latter greatly reinforced the relative poverty of many Sub-Saharan economies. Again, it is important to distinguish settler and non-settler economies within colonial Africa itself. In the latter case it was in the interests of colonial regimes to support, rather than simply extract from, African economic enterprise. Finally, economic rent and economic growth have often been joint products, including in pre-colonial and colonial Africa; the kinds of institutions that favoured economic growth in certain historical contexts were not necessarily optimal for that purpose in others. AJR have done much to bring development economics and economic history together. The next step is a more flexible conceptual framework, and a more complex explanation. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Suggested Citation

  • Gareth Austin, 2008. "The 'reversal of fortune' thesis and the compression of history: Perspectives from African and comparative economic history," Journal of International Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 20(8), pages 996-1027.
  • Handle: RePEc:wly:jintdv:v:20:y:2008:i:8:p:996-1027 DOI: 10.1002/jid.1510

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Nathan Nunn, 2008. "The Long-term Effects of Africa's Slave Trades," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 123(1), pages 139-176.
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    Cited by:

    1. Meisel, Adolfo, 2014. "No Reversal Of Fortune In The Long Run: Geography And Spatial Persistence Of Prosperity In Colombia, 1500-2005," Revista de Historia Económica, Cambridge University Press, vol. 32(03), pages 411-428, December.
    2. Asongu, Simplice A & Nwachukwu, Jacinta C., 2016. "Unjust Enrichment from Official Corruption in Africa: Theory and Model on how Lenders have benefited," MPRA Paper 75416, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    3. Baten, Jörg & Cappelli, Gabriele, 2016. "The Evolution of Human Capital in Africa, 1730 -1970: A Colonial Legacy?," CEPR Discussion Papers 11273, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    4. Kodila-Tedika, Oasis & Asongu, Simplice & Cinyabuguma, Matthias, 2016. "The White Man’s Burden: On the Effect of African Resistance to European Domination," MPRA Paper 74228, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    5. repec:eee:exehis:v:67:y:2018:i:c:p:80-104 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. Amavilah, Voxi Heinrich, 2017. "The African origins of Euro-American development: Pins on an empirical roadmap," MPRA Paper 79925, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    7. Jerven, Morten & Austin, Gareth & Green, Erik & Uche, Chibuike & Frankema, Ewout & Fourie, Johan & Inikori, Joseph & Moradi, Alexander & Hillbom, Ellen, 2012. "Moving Forward in African Economic History. Bridging the Gap Between Methods and Sources," Lund Papers in Economic History 124, Lund University, Department of Economic History.
    8. Sanghamitra Bandyopadhyay & Elliott Green, 2011. "The Reversal of Fortune Thesis Reconsidered," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 48(7), pages 817-831, December.
    9. Whatley, Warren, 2017. "The gun-slave hypothesis and the 18th century British slave trade," MPRA Paper 80050, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    10. Feger, Thuto & Asafu-Adjaye, John, 2014. "Tax effort performance in sub-Sahara Africa and the role of colonialism," Economic Modelling, Elsevier, vol. 38(C), pages 163-174.
    11. Mark Dincecco & James Fenske & Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato, 2014. "Is Africa Different? Historical Conflict and State Development," CSAE Working Paper Series 2014-35, Centre for the Study of African Economies, University of Oxford.
    12. Simplice Asongu, 2014. "Law, Finance and Investment: Does Legal Origin Matter in Africa?," The Review of Black Political Economy, Springer;National Economic Association, vol. 41(2), pages 145-175, June.
    13. Federico Tadei, 2017. "Measuring Extractive Institutions: Colonial Trade and Price Gaps in French Africa," Working Papers 0109, European Historical Economics Society (EHES).
    14. Valentin Seidler, 2017. "Institutional copying in the 20th century: The role of 14,000 British colonial officers," CAGE Online Working Paper Series 345, Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE).
    15. repec:dau:papers:123456789/12675 is not listed on IDEAS
    16. Bezemer, Dirk & Bolt, Jutta & Lensink, Robert, 2014. "Slavery, Statehood, and Economic Development in Sub-Saharan Africa," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 57(C), pages 148-163.
    17. Kostadis J. Papaioannou, 2018. "The Horns of a Dilemma in Colonial Policies:Rice, Rubber and Living Standards in the Malay Peninsula," Working Papers 0122, European Historical Economics Society (EHES).
    18. repec:dau:papers:123456789/4300 is not listed on IDEAS
    19. Kodila-Tedika, Oasis, 2013. "Esclavagisme et colonisation : Quelles conséquences contemporaines en Afrique ? - Résumé critique des travaux de l'économiste Nathan Nunn
      [Slavery and colonization: What contemporary consequences i
      ," MPRA Paper 43732, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    20. Valpy FitzGerald, 2008. "Economic development and fluctuations in earnings inequality in the very long run: The evidence from Latin America 1900-2000," Journal of International Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 20(8), pages 1028-1048.
    21. Dupraz, Yannick, 2017. "French and British Colonial Legacies in Education: Evidence from the Partition of Cameroon," CAGE Online Working Paper Series 333, Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE).
    22. Broms, Rasmus, 2017. "Colonial Revenue Extraction and Modern Day Government Quality in the British Empire," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 90(C), pages 269-280.
    23. Federico Tadei, 2014. "Extractive Institutions and Gains From Trade: Evidence from Colonial Africa," Working Papers 536, IGIER (Innocenzo Gasparini Institute for Economic Research), Bocconi University.
    24. Sue Bowden & Paul Mosley, 2012. "Politics, Public Expenditure and the Evolution of Poverty in Africa 1920-2009," Working Papers 2012003, The University of Sheffield, Department of Economics.

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