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Econometrica. 2013 Jan;81(1):113-152.

Pre-colonial Ethnic Institutions and Contemporary African Development.

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Brown University and NBER.
Dartmouth College, NBER and CEPR.


We investigate the role of deeply-rooted pre-colonial ethnic institutions in shaping comparative regional development within African countries. We combine information on the spatial distribution of ethnicities before colonization with regional variation in contemporary economic performance, as proxied by satellite images of light density at night. We document a strong association between pre-colonial ethnic political centralization and regional development. This pattern is not driven by differences in local geographic features or by other observable ethnic-specific cultural and economic variables. The strong positive association between pre-colonial political complexity and contemporary development obtains also within pairs of adjacent ethnic homelands with different legacies of pre-colonial political institutions.


Africa; Development; Ethnicities; Institutions

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