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“The Scramble for Africa” that lasted from 1884 and concluded by the end of the 20th century carved up the territory of the African continent according to the whims and designs of European colonisers (Michalopoulos & Papaioannou, 2011). With the end of the Second World War and European powers riddled with crippling war debt, the process of decolonisation became imminent. Between 1950 and 1960, almost every African state had regained sovereignty (Easterly & Levine, 1995). The immediacy with which the continent was colonised was echoed in the haste with which it was decolonised. Colonised states finally had a chance to break through the shackles of imperialism. However, colonisation had left a profound impact on the economic and social legacies of these states and in some part, was responsible for the systematic growth failures that were to occur throughout the African continent.

The African growth tragedy

In the early part of the 20th-century growth rate of African countries rivalled or sometimes even exceeded that of their Asian Least Developed Countries (LDC) counterparts. The World Bank's chief economist listed seven African countries that “clearly have the potential to reach or surpass’ a 7 per cent growth rate” (Easterly & Levine, 1995). However, African countries started falling behind other LDCs from the 1960s to the 1990s. During that period, the growth rate of African countries is at an average of 2% while the global average is 3%. From 1980-89, they, in fact, began to display negative growth. The stagnation is so stark that some countries were poorer in 2000 than they were in 1980 (Bertocchia & Canova, 1996). These missing years of growth are often deemed the African growth tragedy the scars of which are still pertinent today. Out of the 25 poorest countries in the world today, 20 lie in Africa.

This 'tragedy' has been researched considerably by economists, and there are multitudes of factors that have been attributed to this phenomenon. These range from structural elements such as climatic conditions, geographical difficulties, poor policies, ethnic, and civil strife.  However, another factor that potentially contributes to the stagnation of growth is the lingering effects of colonialism. The impact of colonisation on economic growth would be most pronounced in the African case because no other region of the world experienced it for as long and as unvaryingly as Africa. “The economic goals of colonialism were simple: to provide maximum economic benefit to the colonizing power at the lowest possible price," (Settles, 1996). African countries were forced to produce only for the export market, and prices for these were kept low to benefit European powers. This form of direct exploitation hampers growth facilities of a state as it leads to an unequal introduction of a colony to international trade (Englebert, 2000).  Since these countries are restricted to exporting primary resources and importing more expensive goods, they could not compete in the global trade system. Native industries were not developed or promoted which undoubtedly meant that they were not ready to drive growth at the time of independence.

Numbers certainly support the hypothesis of the colonial impact on African growth. (Bertocchi & Canova, 1996), undertook a cross-sectional empirical analysis of the effect of colonisation on Africa’s growth. They used a sample of 46 African countries starting from the year 1960 to 1988 and compared the GDP per capita of these states for that period. They found that countries that were colonies perform far worse than the independent states with regards to their political status and convergence rates of growth.

Development for exploitation

Proponents of the colonial rule argue that colonisation helped to modernise African states through the development of education, healthcare and infrastructure.  However, all these developments were not in service of the people of the continent but instead for the colonisers (Settles, 1996). Roads and transport structures were built to connect resource-rich areas to the coasts and not to establish interconnectivity within countries. European colonisers did not migrate or settle in Africa due to the challenging climate conditions and installed minimal institutions that supported the transfer of wealth to a ruling minority (Acemoglu, Johnson, & Robinson, 2001). Education policies followed by colonial powers differ from country to country, and research shows that these policies continue to have an impact today. Studies conducted by (Agbor et al., 2011) show that British colonies perform better than the French. They also state that the choices made by colonial powers with regards to education policy “continue to matter today and are a crucial determinant of growth differences across the continent."

Impacts of the Ethnic Division

One final way in which colonialism affected growth is the impact of ethnic fragmentation. 'The Scramble for Africa' divided the continent according to the arbitration of European powers despite their poor knowledge of African geographic and cultural divisions. Most African states did not correct these ill-devised territorial boundaries at the time of independence. One such example is the state of Somalia. Large sections of the Somali people were split up and spread out into four different European colonies. The Somali populace in Ethiopia waged three wars with the state’s governments partly due to these ethnic conflicts. Similarly, Somali insurgents have also clashed with the Kenyan state due to their secessionist demands (Michalopoulos & Papaioannou, 2011). Easterley & Levine in 1997, studied 64,650 cases of genocidal conflict over the periods 1997-2013, they discovered that political violence is prevalent in partitioned countries. They further concluded that individuals from partitioned groups 'have fewer household assets, poorer access to public utilities and lower education'. Furthermore, they deeply examined the effect of ethnic fragmentation on policy-making and found that it has led to social polarisation.

While the colonisation period of African history may have lasted for only about eighty years, it has left a long-lasting impact on the continent's development. However, between 2000 and 2014, annual GDP growth in Africa averages about 4.6 per cent (UNECA, 2016). There has been a sharp upturn in the economic development of the continent the reasons for which are also multitude. As the continent finally emerges from the shadows of its colonial past, 'The African Growth Tragedy' may finally be turning into 'The African Growth Miracle'.


Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., & Robinson, J. A. (2001). The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation. The American Economic Review, 91(5), 1369-1401.

Agbor, J.A. (2011). ‘How Does Colonial Origin Matter For Economic Performance In Sub-Saharan Africa?’.  WIDER Working Paper 2011/027.

Bertocchia, G., & Canova, F. (2002). Did colonization matter for growth? An empirical exploration into the historical causes of Africa’s underdevelopment. European Economic Review, 46(10), 1851-1871.

Easterly, W., & Levine, R. (1995). Africa's Growth Tragedy: A Retrospective, 1960-89. World Bank.

Easterley, W., & Levine, R. (1997). Africa's Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(4), 1203-1250.

Englebert, P. (2000). Pre-Colonial Institutions, Post-Colonial States, and Economic Development in Tropical Africa. Political Research Quarterly, 53(1), 7-36.

Michalopoulos, S., & Papaioannou, E. (2011). The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa. The National Bureau of Economic Research, 106(7), 1802-1848.

Settles, J. D. (1996). The Impact of Colonialism on African Economic Development. University of Tennessee Honors Thesis

UNECA (2016). From ‘African growth tragedy' to 'Africa rising'. In U. N. Africa, Transformative Industrial Policy for Africa.

Image Credit: World Atlas


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Written By Sapan Taneja

Sapan Taneja is a freelance writer, editor and a filmmaker with an interest in all things Politics, International Relations and Economics.

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