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Miércoles 11 de octubre de 2023

Seminario de investigación: When capturing developments in Africa’s colonial income inequality – What can we learn from social tables?

Por Ellen Hillbom, Lund University

INARBE organiza este seminario que se celebrará el 11 de octubre a las 12,00h. en la sala de conferencias del edificio Jerónimo de Ayanz.


Today, Africa stands out as having the largest inter-regional differences in inequality in the world, including some of the most unequal countries, like South Africa. Still, the most influential publications and databases addressing global inequality largely lack data before the 1960s because information is missing, scattered, unreliable, and sometimes contradictory. This hampers our understanding of the drivers of heterogeneous inequality outcomes in the long run and leads to Africa being mostly omitted from inequality debates in global history.

In recent years, scholars in the African Long-Term Inequality Trends (AFLIT) research network (see have advanced the social tables approach, which is a well-established way to study inequality in pre-industrial societies (Milanovic et al. 2011).  This has resulted in full social tables for five colonial economies: Botswana (Bolt and Hillbom 2016), Ghana (Aboagye and Bolt 2021), Ivory Coast and Senegal (Hillbom et al., 2022), and Uganda (De Haas 2022). Differently from the study of top-income earners using tax records and aiming to capture the small (European) economic elite (Alvaredo and Atkinson 2018; Alvaredo et al. 2020; Atkinson 2014, 2015), the social tables studies address the whole economically active population at all levels of the income pyramid.

The most recent research output is a forthcoming article based on the mentioned African social tables and Bigsten’s (1987) study of Kenya. We investigate to what extent and through what mechanisms colonial export-oriented commercialization drove inequality primarily among the large majority of the population – the self-employed farmers. First, we ensure the commensurability of the different social tables using a range of inequality metrics. Then, we find that: (1) during the colonial period of export-led economic expansion, income inequality increased in the six countries studied, although at varying rates; (2) in colonies with sizeable European settlement, racial cleavages accounted for a large proportion of inequality and that inequality between Africans was lower in colonies with a larger proportion of settlers compared to colonies with limited European settlement; (3) tentatively countries specializing in more labour- versus capital-intensive commodities had different inequality outcomes, especially within their agricultural sectors.



Aboagye, P. and Bolt, J. (2021). (forthcoming) Long-Term Trends in Income Inequality: Winners and Losers of Economic Change in Ghana, 1891-1960. Explorations in Economic History.

Alvaredo, F., Cogneau, D. and Piketty. T. (2020). Income Inequality Under Colonial Rule: Evidence from French Algeria, Cameroon, Tunisia, and Vietnam and Comparisons with the British Empire 1920-1960. CEPR Discussion Paper No. DP14969.

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