The economic legacies of the ‘thin white line’: indirect rule and the comparative development of sub-Saharan Africa
Recent empirical studies claim to have identified roots of Africa’s poverty in its colonial past, particularly in the ‘extractive’ or ‘illegitimate’ institutions that the colonial powers bequeathed. While taking a similar quantitative approach this paper accepts the view of many historians that colonial institutions were just as much African in origin as they were exogenously imposed. The number of colonial administrators relative to the African population – or the ‘thin white line’ – in 33 African colonies is examined. This varied considerably across the continent but is largely explicable by factors which appear to have had little direct effect on economic performance. There is found to be a strong and robust positive correlation between the closeness of administration during the colonial period and economic growth since independence, particularly where pre-colonial political systems were relatively decentralised. It is proposed that this correlation is the result of a causal relationship: where colonial powers were unable or unwilling to rule over their subjects directly they inadvertently increased competition between Africans over productive resources and political power. This has aggravated the insecurity of the poorest and least connected within African societies and rendered the pursuit of wealth contingent on active participation in political processes.
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