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

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  • Richens, Peter

Abstract

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.

Suggested Citation

  • Richens, Peter, 2009. "The economic legacies of the ‘thin white line’: indirect rule and the comparative development of sub-Saharan Africa," Economic History Working Papers 27879, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
  • Handle: RePEc:ehl:wpaper:27879
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    File URL: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/27879/
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    Cited by:

    1. Daniel Oto-Peralías & Diego Romero-Ávila, 2014. "The Distribution of Legal Traditions around the World: A Contribution to the Legal-Origins Theory," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 57(3), pages 561-628.
    2. Frankema, Ewout, 2011. "Colonial taxation and government spending in British Africa, 1880-1940: Maximizing revenue or minimizing effort?," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 48(1), pages 136-149, January.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • N0 - Economic History - - General
    • F54 - International Economics - - International Relations, National Security, and International Political Economy - - - Colonialism; Imperialism; Postcolonialism
    • J61 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Mobility, Unemployment, Vacancies, and Immigrant Workers - - - Geographic Labor Mobility; Immigrant Workers
    • O55 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economywide Country Studies - - - Africa

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