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It really was better to be British than French

Or so say the authors of a study probing the effects of colonial rule in West Africa.

To identify the effects of colonial legacy, we focus on one case, the West African nation of Cameroon. Originally colonized by Germany, Cameroon was divided between Britain and France during World War I, and the two powers implemented widely divergent colonial policies in their separate zones. The two areas were only reunited at independence in 1960, and despite a strong policy of centralization, they retain separate legal and education systems and a strong attachment to the language and culture of their respective colonizers. A comparison of these regions this permits an excellent test of the colonizer influence hypothesis.

Comparing communities close to but on either side of the colonial border, Alexander Lee and Kenneth Schultz of Stanford discover that rural households on the British side are wealthier and have access to better water sources than those on the French side.

This blog frequently covers how long-ago events have surprising effects on today’s development outcomes: patterns of indigenous slavery in Peru and Bolivia show up in household consumption and stunted children’s growth, while taxation regimes in colonial Nigeria influence the quality of public service provision. If that’s not long run enough for you, how about 1000 BC?

This new study on Cameroon is among many that find British colonial institutions (as compared to those of their French, German, Belgian, Portuguese or Spanish colonial competitors) lead to better development outcomes today. Lee and Schultz note that the Anglo edge comes from a combination of characteristics generally common to British colonial regimes: “lack of forced labor, more autonomous local institutions…common law, English culture, Protestantism” but stop short of telling us which of these were most responsible for the differences observed in Cameroon.

For some relief from the oppressive conclusion that today’s development outcomes are all pre-determined, the researchers find that post-independence policies matter too.  The positive effects from British rule don’t hold for urban areas or for centrally-provided public goods, showing that post-independence policies, which have generally favored the former French side with greater infrastructure investment, can overtake colonial legacies.

Thanks to reader Blair Reeves for the pointer to the study.

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  1. Ed wrote:

    Interesting article, but just because the British side are wealthier and have better drinking water doesn’t mean they are better than the French IMO… It just means the British has better living luxury’s.

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 4:00 am | Permalink
  2. But its best not to have Europeans there at all:

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  3. Tom C wrote:

    This comes as no surprise. First France leaves their former colonies without institutional resources then Franc Afrique keeps the old colonies under the French commercial and political thumb. The revolving aid door where France gives aid and African presidents give cash contributions to French presidential campaigns keeps the old boy network working well for those who are the old boys. Even more important is civil law vs common law. Common law is dynamic and evolving. Civil law is hidebound and has no ability to adapt. I see ex English colonies with a future and ex French colonies with a past. Looking around Africa today we see Guinea, Cote Ivoire, Madagascar, Niger and Mauritania in emerging from or returning to coups d’etat. There isnt even an English word for that!

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink
  4. marc wrote:

    Seriously suggesting that “British culture, and Protestantism” have anything but the most tangential, marginal thing to do with a more positive outcome for former colonies is not only supremacist, but voids any legitimacy such a narrow minded investigation had by revealing the sheer ignorance on the issue. Being such a limited investigation, “exceptions do not make a rule” thoroughly applies. Although the investigation reveals the positive outcome in Cameroon, must I point out that correlation does not implicitly imply causation.

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  5. marc wrote:

    Btw, do I also have to be the one to point out that “British cultuer, and protestantism” were precisely the reason why cultures were destroyed, people indentured, resources and land stolen, and freedom taken. And now they are supposed to be the reason why former colonies are doing “better” than others? It’s grotesque and ignorant, at best!

    It’s essentially the same devoid rationale that a wife-beater makes. Beat the wife and destroy her self-esteem, confidence, attractiveness, and physical appeal; and then proclaim that she would be nothing without him and that she has to thank him for all she does have. It is absolutely disgusting and absolute evidence of a stupidity, so pervasive that it has infiltrated and compromised the sheer ability to comprehend the the most basic biases and errors.

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  6. H wrote:


    If British colonies are doing better than other colonies then “British culture, and protestantism” could well be reasons for this, regardless of how much they screwed up the countries in the first place. This fact is not “grotesque and ignorant”.

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  7. Ntang wrote:

    First off – what, Laura, no hat tip?

    Second – the difference between Francophone and Anglophone Cameroon is really quite striking, if you’ve ever been there. Better roads. Schools. State institutions. The officials are still corrupt, of course, but noticeably less so. The Anglophone provinces – the Northwest and Southwest – are permitted to run their own school system essentially separate from the rest of the country.

    Clearly, there are *lots* of influences and factors that have come to bear on the situation today. Many of them have little or nothing to do with white people (ex. the kleptocratic, dictatorial regime of Paul Biya). Nevertheless, the British colonial influence, the structures they left in place and the context into which they inserted their authority – the NW/SW provinces already had strong traditions of localized authority when they arrived, as opposed to areas in the Central, South and East of Cameroon – all contributed to the disparity between the two regions of the country.

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  8. Laura Freschi wrote:

    @Ntang, Actually I just forgot where I got this study from! Amended above. And thanks for your comments.

    @Marc, no, we don’t need you to point out either of those things. For the 18th time, we, along with the authors of the paper, are aware that correlation does not equal causation. And, I think everyone is clear that the argument here is about whether British colonial institutions turned out to be conducive to better development outcomes, *compared to those institutions created by other colonizers,* which has nothing to do with the nonsensical argument you seem to think we’re making that the former colonies “would be nothing without” Britian.

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  9. Ana wrote:

    Perfectly reasonable alternative hypothesis: Dominant francophone people make anglophones rally together in solidarity which is good for growth; language barriers make them less lootable, paradoxically, by central authority. Do the authors address this? I’m too lazy to read paper. And BTW it is indeed quite reasonable to argue that papers like these- which wife beater was less bad- are indeed heinous attempts to distract from JUSTICE.

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  10. Ntang wrote:

    “are indeed heinous attempts to distract from JUSTICE.”

    Yes, we all know, colonization was bad, etc… but what does this even mean??

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  11. Dan Kyba wrote:

    I have worked in a number of former British colonies and one former English-French condominium. It is a tough sell to regard the British colonies as uniform in terms of policy and development. I recall this blog having an interesting piece how development patterns differed within one colony (Nigeria) as based upon the regional tax policy. So treating colonies or colonialism as a homogenous variable fails when you look past the political correctness.

    In general, I would hazard this much. The English tradition of common law is more amenable to local custom than the French system of civil law. Therefore the former is a better foundation for a developing country to upgrade its traditional legal codes into the 21st century and global economy.

    Posted December 8, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
  12. Koronya wrote:

    We can all agree it was worst to be Portuguese.
    They took the longest and left the worst situations.

    Posted December 10, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

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  1. By Colonial rule in fashion « Ifev's Blog on December 10, 2010 at 6:02 am

    […] one week, All About Finance and Aid watch both wrote aboute two different new papers having the same theme: the colonial roots of differences […]

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