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Colonialism did not Make Africa Poor

Africa is a big place with a lot of history, but is treated as a single entity in modern political discussions. Before going over the charts, consider this:

In 1950, the continent of Africa (including North Africa) had a population of 230 million.

In 2015, that number had increased to 1,166 million (1.166 billion).

This is a quintupling of the population. Is Europe directly responsible for that? Did they pay Africans to overbreed? This, the most important factor in Africa’s standard of living, is simply not mentioned.

Oh, and by the way, props to the George Bush’s Foundation for saving an estimated 1 million African lives with your initiatives; the continent really needed that.

That aside. first, lets just look at purchasing power parity per capita in Africa by year and see if colonization corresponded to any big shifts:

Looking at this, the answer seems to be no. There’s nothing that really pops out at you. Contrary to either narrative, it seems colonialism neither helped nor hurt. Also that Africa didn’t really get any poorer overall following decolonization.

I think colonialism is a big thing politically, basically the whole world being painted a few European colors, but this may overstate how important it was economically.

This next chart compares Africa to China, India and Japan over the same years:

At first I was going to fix the scale and just blow up the differences between India, China and Africa. But I like the perspective this gives.

Another thing that calls into question the impact of colonialism is when we look at the variation between former colonies after 1960. First lets look at the nominal GDP per capita (not PPP) of South Korea, Zimbabwe and Botswana between 1960 and 1975:

All super poor. Korea was not a European colony, of course, but it’s important to know that in 1960 East Asia, including China (as seen above), was every bit as poor as Africa. Following 1975 the trajectory changed. Zimbabwe doesn’t have statistics for a few years, but I think we can piece together what’s in there:

So is colonialism responsible for Zimbabwe being poor, but slightly less so for Botswana, because Botswana started to have major economic growth around 1985 (Botswana became independent in 1966)?

And it’s not like Europeans taking over Africa was decided before any of this. It was itself a product of Africa being poor and thus easy to take over (“conquer” would overstate what Europe had to do) – and Europe being in an age where they were still willing to do that kind of thing. The Congo Free State for example was established by roughly 200 Europeans.

We can also break this down country by country and ask whether nation’s that were more colonized ended up being poorer or richer. The answer, whether you measure colonization by the number of Europeans who went there or the amount of time that a colony lasted there, is that more colonized nations ended up being richer.
Less than 12.5%

Eaverly and Levine (2012) 

Years as a colony

Feyrer and Sacerdote (2006)

Now, you might say that this is all because more Europeans went to and stayed longer in richer African nations but you’re going to need some evidence. And that evidence will need to take into account the fact that the amount of precious metals in an area does not predict the degree to which it was colonized by Europeans (Eaverly and Levine 2012).

The pro-colonialism case is strengthened further by the fact that the degree to which an area was colonized also predicts its future quality of education and government quality, and these variables moderate the relationship between colonization and modern wealth (Eaverly and Levine 2012).

There is little systematic evidence that colonialism made Africa poor.

African population statistics:



(counting pixels)

World region GDP PPP statistics

Country nominal GDP per capita statistics

  • guard4her

    Did they pay Africans to overbreed?
    Yes, actually they did. Tons of food and other aid sent to Africa simply resulted in the most obvious and historically proven result: more Africans than the local environment can support.