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.