Good, Bad and Ugly Colonial Activities: Do They Matter for Economic Development?
Levels of economic development vary widely within countries in the Americas. We argue that part of this variation has its roots in the colonial era. Colonizers engaged in different economic activities in different regions of a country, depending on local conditions. Some activities, such as mining and sugar cultivation, were “bad” in the sense that they depended heavily on the exploitation of labor and led to a low development path, while “good” activities led to a high development path. We show that areas with bad colonial activities have lower output per capita today than areas with good colonial activities. Areas with high pre-colonial population density also do worse today. Moreover, the positive effect of “good” activities goes away in areas with high pre-colonial population density. We attribute this to the “ugly” fact that colonizers used the pre-colonial population as an exploitable resource, thereby also leading to a low development path. Our results suggest that differences in political representation and in the current ethnic composition of the population (but not differences in human capital or income inequality) could be the intermediating factors between colonial activities and current development.
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