February 19, 2018

Colonialism did not Make Africa Poor

Africa is a big place with a lot of history, but is treated as a single entity in modern political discussions. Before going over the charts, consider this:

In 1950, the continent of Africa (including North Africa) had a population of 230 million.

In 2015, that number had increased to 1,166 million (1.166 billion).

This is a quintupling of the population. Is Europe directly responsible for that? Did they pay Africans to overbreed? This, the most important factor in Africa’s standard of living, is simply not mentioned.

Oh, and by the way, props to the George Bush’s Foundation for saving an estimated 1 million African lives with your initiatives; the continent really needed that.

That aside. first, lets just look at purchasing power parity per capita in Africa by year and see if colonization corresponded to any big shifts:

Looking at this, the answer seems to be no. There’s nothing that really pops out at you. Contrary to either narrative, it seems colonialism neither helped nor hurt. Also that Africa didn’t really get any poorer overall following decolonization.

I think colonialism is a big thing politically, basically the whole world being painted a few European colors, but this may overstate how important it was economically.

This next chart compares Africa to China, India and Japan over the same years:

At first I was going to fix the scale and just blow up the differences between India, China and Africa. But I like the perspective this gives.

Another thing that calls into question the impact of colonialism is when we look at the variation between former colonies after 1960. First lets look at the nominal GDP per capita (not PPP) of South Korea, Zimbabwe and Botswana between 1960 and 1975:

All super poor. Korea was not a European colony, of course, but it’s important to know that in 1960 East Asia, including China (as seen above), was every bit as poor as Africa. Following 1975 the trajectory changed. Zimbabwe doesn’t have statistics for a few years, but I think we can piece together what’s in there:

So is colonialism responsible for Zimbabwe being poor, but slightly less so for Botswana, because Botswana started to have major economic growth around 1985 (Botswana became independent in 1966)?

And it’s not like Europeans taking over Africa was decided before any of this. It was itself a product of Africa being poor and thus easy to take over (“conquer” would overstate what Europe had to do) – and Europe being in an age where they were still willing to do that kind of thing. The Congo Free State for example was established by roughly 200 Europeans.

We can also break this down country by country and ask whether nation’s that were more colonized ended up being poorer or richer. The answer, whether you measure colonization by the number of Europeans who went there or the amount of time that a colony lasted there, is that more colonized nations ended up being richer.
Less than 12.5%

Eaverly and Levine (2012) 

Years as a colony

Feyrer and Sacerdote (2006)

Now, you might say that this is all because more Europeans went to, and what stay longer at, richer African nations. You can say that, but you’re going to need some evidence. And that evidence will need to take into account the fact that the amount of precious metals in an area does not predict the degree to which it was colonized by Europeans (Eaverly and Levine 2012).

The pro-colonialism case is strengthened further by the fact that the degree to which an area was colonized also predicts its future quality of education and government quality, and these variables moderate the relationship between colonization and modern wealth (Eaverly and Levine 2012).

There is little systematic evidence that colonialism made Africa poor.

African population statistics:



(counting pixels)

World region GDP PPP statistics

Country nominal GDP per capita statistics

Facebook Comments
  • Righteousauthority1

    mr Faulk i’m wondering if you could do a decent de-bunk of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”. He has several points identical to yours like agricultural societies dominating hunter gatherer societies, only he says that agricultural societies simply lucked out due to geography (ie fertile crescent, northern hemisphere east-west transfer of seeds and livestock) and genetics have nothing to do with it. This is very appealing to intellectual liberals since its a very convenient and concise, with a bit of humility (ie filthy europeans slept with their animals so they evolved superbugs that genocided new world and southern hemisphere noble tribespeople). but logically different selection pressures will create different genes. then at the end he just has to add on that the Papua New Guinean tribesman shimmying up palm trees to grab coconuts is actually smarter than your average comfortable white officer worker because he has to problem-solve to survive – so Diamond has his cake and eats it too. anyway you’ve dealt with worse pseudoscience than this so i think its worth a look if you’re not aware of it already

    • Kris Polk

      Diamond’s biggest omission is that whatever geographic factors led to hunter-gatherer societies, temperate agriculture, or tropical agriculture, there is plenty of time for culture-gene co-evolution since then. This along with Diamond’s glib insistence that New Guineans are smarter without going into intelligence research seem more serious than his general historical assertion.

    • B.B.
  • Mark Martinson

    What is the egalitarians explanation as to why Haiti is poor? It was the first country after the USA to get independence in the New World.

    • Kris Polk

      The claim is that France imposed on them a debt for the financial loss of their slaves and the US stood behind this with a trade embargo until the US eventually de facto colonized it under Woodrow Wilson.
      I don’t know enough about how to refute this though.

      • Mark Martinson

        What about Liberia – which was never colonized. I’m sure they have an answer for that.

        • Kris Polk

          What I have heard for that one – and this’ll really make you chuckle – is that the Americo-Liberian freed slaves who settled there enslaved and oppressed the locals because they were taught to do so by the White slave masters.

          • Kris Polk

            Of course the thing there is no matter how poor it may have been for rural peasants it was a functioning society until it collapsed into tribal warfare in the 80s after the first non Americo-Liberian dictator was overthrown.

          • George Remington

            That of course omits the fact that interracial slavery was a pillar on which African tribes built themselves upon, just as all primitive people did.