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.