Research Projects

Is Poverty Destiny? Exploring Long Term Changes in African Living Standards in Global Perspective

Africa has recently become a new frontier area in research on the historical roots of global inequality. This NWO VIDI project seeks to broaden the empirical basis for long term African welfare analysis using previously unexplored colonial archives and focusing on understudied areas and time periods.

While there is consensus that African economies, to various degrees, expanded in response to international market integration during the colonial era, there is widespread disagreement on the question to which degree ordinary Africans actually benefitted as well as to which extent the colonial era represented a break with pre-colonial economic and political developments, particularly during the 19th century. Exploring historical archives with data on African trade, rural production systems, commodity prices, missionary activities and colonial government accounts, this research project seeks to develop a long-term comparative perspective on the development of African living standards in British West Africa, British Southern Africa and Portuguese Africa.

The research team led by Professor Ewout Frankema consists of two PhD students, Angus Dalrymple-Smith and Kleoniki Alexopoulou, one Post-graduate researcher, dr. Dacil Juif, and a number of rotating research assistants. The project contains a strategy to disseminate its results to non-academic audiences and seeks to support the development of African research capacity in collaboration with international partners united in the African Economic History Network. The project is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and is scheduled for 2013-2018.

Is Poverty Destiny? A New Empirical Foundation for Long-Term African Welfare Analysis

This ERC Starting Grant project aims to create a new empirical foundation for the study of long-term African welfare development, in order to provide new impetus to the debate on the root causes of African poverty.

What is missing is a systematic account of long-term welfare development that connects the colonial era to the post-colonial era on the basis of temporally consistent and internationally comparable living standard indicators. The lack of such an empirical foundation has left important research questions unresolved. Firstly, did African income levels fall behind those of the rest of the world during the deep economic and political crises of the late 20th century or long before that? Secondly, to what extent did ordinary Africans benefit from the expansion of colonial trade and foreign investment between 1880 and 1960? Thirdly, to what extent has African welfare growth been constrained by structural development impediments, such as adverse geographical conditions?

The project make use of the largely unexploited wage and price statistics from colonial archival sources and connects these to existing post-colonial wage and price series, in order to compare long-term trajectories of African welfare development to those of other world regions, using the available datasets on historical living standards for Europe, Asia and Latin America. The observed intra-African variation in these trajectories will be explored by integrating the key sources of long-term economic growth (geography, institutions, trade) into a single analytical framework.

The research team led by Professor Ewout Frankema consists of two PhD students, Michiel de Haas and Kostadis Papaioannou, one Post-graduate researcher, dr. Pieter Woltjer, and a number of rotating research assistants.

This project is part of the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme, ERC Grant Agreement nº 313114 and is scheduled for 2012-2017.

South-South Divergence: Comparative Histories of Regional Integration in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa since 1850

While historians have made great efforts to investigate the origins and drivers of the great divergence between the industrialized ‘North’ and ‘global South’, questions about the historical roots of the more recent economic divide between Asia and Africa have hardly appeared on the radar. This project breaks new ground by exploring why Southeast Asia grew out of poverty so rapidly after experiencing several devastating ‘crises of decolonization’ (1940s-1970s), including warfare, famine, genocide and economic collapse, while recovery in Sub-Saharan Africa after a comparable epoch of violence and instability (1970s-1990s) was fragile and limited.

The central hypothesis is that Southeast Asia’s postcolonial economic ascent was rooted in more profound regional trade, migration and investment flows which intensified in the mid-19th century. These deeper regional networks were stimulated by colonial policies of extraction, and provided more developed (agricultural) export markets and critical human and financial resources during SEAs recovery from crises. In Sub-Saharan Africa regional markets for goods, labour and capital had also evolved, but less extensively for geographic and demographic reasons. Moreover, the territorial compartmentalization of colonial extraction disrupted these networks, creating a less conducive environment for the recovery from postcolonial crises and the onset of inclusive growth.

Intertwining methods from comparative and transnational history this project develops a novel ‘comparison of connections’ approach to study the historical evolution of regional markets and the institutions that mediated them. Using new quantitative and qualitative sources we explore to what extent long-term waves of regional integration and disintegration have generated varying conditions for pro-poor growth. The results will feed back into theories of world historical development that remain heavily focused on the North-South divide, and will inform a dialogue with the development-policy field regarding the UN SDGs mission to eradicate extreme poverty globally by 2030.

African Commodity Trade from the 15th to the 21st Century

In this book project together with Felix Meier zu Selhausen we reconstruct five centuries of commodity trade in Africa. The book is under construction. It builds on the latest version of the African Commodity Trade Databae (ACTD2.0), which can be found here.