In Box

The Longest Shadow

Those regions in Africa hardest hit by the slave trade exhibit the least trust among family members and neighbors today.

If you want to say someone is not to be trusted in Fon, a language spoken in coastal Benin and Togo, the best phrase to use translates as "This person will sell you and enjoy it." The Fon region was, tellingly, one of the historical epicenters of the transatlantic slave trade. That era’s legacy of mistrust endures today.

Economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard University and Leonard Wantchekon of New York University recently compared historical data on the slave trade with contemporary household surveys on community relations. They found that in regions of Africa where the slave trade was most concentrated, people today extend less trust to other individuals: not only to foreigners, but also to relatives and neighbors. Nunn thinks the trauma associated with the slave trade continues to stall economic development in affected regions of Africa. Major shocks, he says, can "change people’s behavior in ways that seem pretty permanent."

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