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The Consequences of Slavery in Africa

Nathan Nunn, an economist at the University of British Columbia, has written an interesting working paper called “The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trade.” His abstract sums it up well:

Can part of Africa’s current underdevelopment be explained by its slave trades? To explore this question, I use data from shipping records and historical documents reporting slave ethnicities to construct estimates of the number of slaves exported from each country during Africa’s slave trades. I find a robust negative relationship between the number of slaves exported from a country and current economic performance. To better understand if the relationship is causal, I examine the historical evidence on selection into the slave trades, and use instrumental variables. Together the evidence suggests that the slave trades have had an adverse effect on economic development.

So Nunn finds that “the African countries that are the poorest today are the ones from which the most slaves were taken.” Does this mean, however, that the extraction of slaves caused those countries to remain poor? Nunn is careful to say that the evidence is not conclusive, since it may be that the African countries that were chaotic and corrupt enough to support the slave trade in the first place may have continued to suffer economically for those same reasons.

Regardless, it is a really interesting paper — and a good preamble, of sorts, to Fogel and Engerman‘s Time on the Cross, which argued that American slavery was less inefficient, and less miserable, than previously thought.

Nunn’s paper is also a good reminder that when many Americans think of Africa, they think of … well, Africa, a continent, as opposed to the many different African nations, each of which has its own set of bounties and problems.