In Box

The Post-Colonial Hangover

Some empires really were worse than others.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

It’s hard to find countries that are nostalgic for colonialism, at least among those that were on the receiving end of it. At the same time, it’s hard to escape the impression that some countries had a worse time of it than others. The former British Empire includes rising power India and Africa’s most stable and prosperous countries — Botswana, Ghana, and South Africa. France’s former dependencies in Africa and Southeast Asia, from Ivory Coast to Cambodia, don’t seem to have fared nearly as well in the post-colonial era.

Some, such as historian Niall Ferguson, have even argued for the positive legacy of the British Empire, seeing the Pax Britannica as an era not merely of imperialist expansion but also of “spreading liberal values in terms of free markets, the rule of law, and ultimately representative government.”

But beyond anecdotal observations, is there any evidence that the type of colonialism determined the way former colonies turned out? Were the bloody post-independence civil wars of Angola and Mozambique, for example, a legacy of Portuguese colonialism, or were competition for resources and the Cold War more to blame? How would the recent histories of Algeria and Vietnam have differed if France had let them go peacefully?

Stanford University Ph.D. candidate Alexander Lee, with Professor Kenneth Schultz, looked at Cameroon, a rare country that includes large regions colonized by separate powers, Britain and France, and then united after independence in 1960. The only country with a similar history is Somalia, where it is understandably difficult to get economic data after more than three decades of war.

The results? There may be something to that British-legacy theory: Lee and Schultz found that formerly British rural areas of Cameroon today boast higher levels of wealth and better public services than those in the formerly French territory. To take one example, nearly 40 percent of rural households in the British provinces examined have access to piped water, while less than 15 percent on the French side do. This could suggest that the British colonial system, which had what Lee calls “greater levels of indirect rule and the granting of local-level autonomy to chiefs,” was more beneficial — or at least less damaging — than the more hands-on French model, which involved a “greater level of forced labor.”

It’s by no means clear, however, that any brand of colonialism was good for the colonized. Harvard University economist Lakshmi Iyer has found that in India, regions that were under direct British rule have lower levels of public services today compared with those where local leaders retained some level of power; these “native states” include today’s high-tech business hubs of Hyderabad and Jaipur. As for Latin America, a forthcoming paper by economists Miriam Bruhn of the World Bank and Francisco Gallego of Chile’s Pontificia Universidad Católica found that areas where colonialism depended heavily on labor exploitation have lower levels of economic development today than places where colonists were less closely involved. (In this context, the grim legacy of Belgium’s King Leopold II — who ran his vast territories in today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo as a brutal personal plantation — doesn’t seem so surprising.)

In the end, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, it seems the best colonist was the one who colonized the least. 

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