Malaria might have determined the economic trajectory of the world…. through institutions

SettlersIt’s an old paper, but I just came across The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation
by Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson, originally published in the The American Economic Review back in 2001.

They take rough data of settler deaths back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and plot them against the GDP of several countries from 1995. I’ve included the plot on the right. What they found was that a higher number of European settler deaths was associated with a long term decline in economic output.

Settling in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a dangerous business, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and less so in what is now the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Malaria and yellow fever were responsible for killing up to 100% of groups brave enough to attempt the journey.

Acemoglu, et al.’s argument is as follows:

1. There were different types of colonization policies which created different sets of institutions. At one extreme, European powers set up “extractive states,” exemplified by the Belgian colonization of the Congo. These institutions did not introduce much protection for private property, nor did they provide checks and balances against government expropriation. In fact, the main purpose of the extractive state was to transfer as much of the resources of the colony to the colonizer. At the other extreme, many Europeans migrated and settled in a number of colonies, creating what the historian Alfred Crosby (1986) calls “Neo-Europes.” The settlers tried to replicated European institutions, with strong emphasis on private property and checks against government power. Primary examples of this include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
2. The colonization strategy was influenced by the feasibility of settlements. In places where the disease environment was not favorable to European settlement, the cards were stacked against the creation of Neo-Europes, and the formation of the extractive state was more likely.
3. The colonial state and institutions persisted even after independence.

They argue that the disease environment determined the nature of settlements, which determine the nature of institutions which, in term, determined the economic trajectory of a country.

Interestingly, they control for all of the things that one might control for, such as distance from the equator and the percentage of inhabitants that were European, being landlocked and the ruling power, ruling out the effect of some obvious potential influences. Property rights, a solid judiciary and limits on political power in the colonies and upon independence, they argue, had a greater effect on long term GDP, and the development of those institutions was enabled or inhibited by early settler mortality.

It’s a fairly compelling argument, though not without its critics.

A few gems from the paper interested me. One, the return on investment in the British colonies during the nineteenth century was a whopping 25%, far more than one could have expected domestically. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this dropped so that returns on colonial and domestic investments were the same.

I found (finally!) a reference to indicate the willful choosing of high altitude and thus less malarious areas for colonial settlements. Note that in Europe and the US, the location of cities is often along river ways and sea sides, where in Africa large cities tend to be placed inland (with some exceptions). There has been no industrial revolution in Africa and little regional trade (a condition which persists to this day) so that cities along water based shipping routes are not necessary. Extraction in Africa was largely done by rail, further alleviating the need to be close to rivers.


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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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