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Development and Colonial History in Africa – AFRISTORY

Colonial History and Development in Africa

The Afristory program took up the challenge of a wide ranging data collection in French archives, gathering detailed public finance figures, a large set of economic and social data, including individual data from indigenous military conscription.

Colonial public expenditure and indigenous living conditions

The Afristory program proposed to make a substantial advance in the quantitative knowledge of the economic history of French colonization, and more generally of Africa. In particular, it was aimed to establish the first overall picture of colonial public expenditure and its local and metropolitan financing, and at the same time of the evolution of some dimensions of living conditions for colonized populations: especially income, education, and health. These pieces of knowledge should allow the building of a new analysis of colonial political economy and of its historical legacies for present-day independent countries. Indeed the shadows and bias of the literature on colonization cannot be accounted for by the scarcity of available archives, but rather by the lack of research effort dedicated to the topic. In contrast with previous works, covering the whole history of colonial investment, under a comparative approach, in a vast set of territories and for the colonial period from the beginning to the end, should open new perspectives, in particular for the analysis of the fifty years since independence until today.

The data collected cover the main territories of the colonial French empire, in Africa and Indochina, from 1830 to 1960. The program produced the first complete and homogeneous database on public finance, which the main variables is also extended, following the same methodological framework, until the year 2012. The budgetary data are complemented with a series of statistical data on demography, education, access to health, infrastructure, agriculture and trade. A second database is made of a sample of around 150,000 individual files of indigenous conscripts and volunteers from the French army in French West Africa (AOF), Central Africa (AEF) and Madagascar, covering the 1890-1960 period, and complemented with data on the organization of the recruitment of these «tirailleurs«. These data already gave rise to a series of «discoveries« on the periodisation of colonialism, on the differences between types of colonies, on indigenous living conditions and their evolution, and on the comparison with British colonialism.

Settlement colonies of North Africa are characterized by levels of expenditure and of revenue that are three times higher compared to others, but expenditures are very much biased and indigenous populations did not benefit from significantly better schooling or health conditions. Since the beginning of the colonial period until the end of WW2, the budgets of territories are domestically financed. Outside of infrastructure expenditures and of support to the private sector, that represent everywhere more than half of expenditure, social spending is limited. In West Africa, soldiers data reveal a stagnation of nutritional living standards between 1900 and 1945. In contrast, the fifteen post-war years (1945-60) bring a structural break: expenditures are multiplied by a factor from 3 to 5. This boom is financed primarily by an increase in domestic fiscal revenue, and comes with a restructuring of taxation. However large metropolitan transfers are also launched for the first time. This push is not a French specificity, as it is also observed in British colonies. During this period, living conditions improve. The independence years 1956-1962 do not seem to bring any new discontinuity: at the beginning of the 1970s, the new States have maintained the same size, and remain dependent of French aid. In most cases, it is the boom of new external revenues that will allow a significant growth in the weight of the State and in the number of civil servants, in particular for education and health, before the structural adjustment of end-1980s.

Three types of perspectives are already foreseen. First, the results obtained will be confronted with the previous literature having delved into, following different approaches and methods, the economic history of French colonialism or of Africa, in order to shed light on lines of convergence or of disagreement, on their respective sources. Second, a relatively general comparison could be undertaken with other colonialisms, outside of West Africa. Third and last, the present challenges raised by the construction of a developmental State in Africa could be reexamined, in light of long-term historical developments, and including not only the colonial period and its interaction with precolonial structures, but also the fifty years elapsed since the independences.

The first results of analyses were presented in a session devoted to the French colonial empire, organized at the World Economic History Congress of Kyoto in August 2015. Two PhD theses were also directly linked to the program. Three main scientific articles are in preparation, for submission to journal during the year 2016, the first about the main lines of spatial and temporal variation of public finances, the second on the evolution of living conditions in West Africa, Central Africa, and Madagascar, as measured by the soldiers data, and the third on the cost of colonization for metropolitan taxpayers. The main results on the colonial French Empire could be gathered in a book to be written by end-2017, at the same time of the public release of the two main databases.

Within the academic field of development economics, long-term history is back on the agenda, through econometric studies of European colonization that shed a new light on the obstacles to an economic development process. However, the main limitation of these studies stems from the lack of data on the colonial period itself, both on the side of implemented policies and, even more, on the side of people's living standards. This limitation implies that the channels through which colonial history matters are still not well known, and that analysis is plagued by some compression of historical time. The Afristory project proposes to make a substantial progress in quantitative knowledge about the economic history of French colonization, and in parallel, for comparative purposes, on some aspects of the British colonization in Africa. It also aims at producing original contributions to development economics, allowing to better specify the causal channels through which historical shocks exert a long-lasting influence on African economic trajectories. To be reached, these objectives require to start with a large program of data construction from existing archives, given that the lack of historical data constitutes the main obstacle to overcome. Indeed the shadow areas and the bias of the literature cannot only be explained by the absence of available and exploitable data, but at least as much by the lack of research efforts. The scientific program can be decomposed in three tasks. The first task is devoted to colonial investment in the French colonial Empire (Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Indochina), and to some comparisons with British Africa. An extensive data collection in the colonial administrative archives will fill the blatant gaps existing in the objective knowledge of the cost and financing of colonial investment between 1850 and 1960. The second task touches upon a domain where quantitative data is extremely scarce: the living standards of indigenous populations under colonial rule and their evolution over the long run. It mainly relies on the collection and analysis of large samples of individual files from the archives of the French colonial conscription, as well as on the exploitation of similar micro-data from British African regiments. The third task matches these first-hand colonial data with contemporary data on formerly colonized regions, at a very disaggregate level (small areas). It builds and statistically assesses analytical narratives about the impact of colonial rule in Africa, on various dimensions of development, by exploiting a number of natural experiments offered by historical experience. This alliance between history and economics of development seeks to exploit some comparative advantages of European research, stemming from a better access to the colonial archives and to the African fieldwork, as well as from a long tradition in quantitative history. Apart from academic objectives, we also hope that these pieces of knowledge will help the public debate, whether at the national or international level, about the consequences of the colonial past for the former colonizers, for the former colonized, and for the construction of their future relations.

Project coordinator


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.



Help of the ANR 250,000 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: September 2011 - 42 Months

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