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The economic legacies of the ‘thin white line’: indirect rule and the comparative development of sub-Saharan Africa

  • Peter Richens
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    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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    File URL: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/27879/
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    Paper provided by London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History in its series Economic History Working Papers with number 27879.

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    Length: 80 pages
    Date of creation: Nov 2009
    Date of revision:
    Handle: RePEc:ehl:wpaper:27879
    Contact details of provider: Postal: LSE, Dept. of Economic History Houghton Street London, WC2A 2AE, U.K.
    Phone: +44 (0) 20 7955 7084
    Web page: http://www.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/
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    1. Nunn, Nathan, 2008. "The Long-Term Effects of Africa's Slave Trades," Scholarly Articles 3710252, Harvard University Department of Economics.
    2. Leeson, Peter T., 2005. "Endogenizing fractionalization," Journal of Institutional Economics, Cambridge University Press, vol. 1(01), pages 75-98, June.
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    8. repec:cup:cbooks:9780521127752 is not listed on IDEAS
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