Proposal preview

“Growing Public” in Africa: State-building and Living Standards.

In recent years, the renaissance of African economic history has generated various new research programs on colonial taxation and public finance, the measurement of living standards and inequality, and the impact of colonial policies and institutions on both state capacity building and living standards. This session aims to take stock of this ongoing research, and gather researchers working on different regions of Africa from a comparative historical perspective.

The consolidation of state capacity, involving in particular the building of a stronger fiscal base, is widely considered to be one of the most important issues for Africa’s economic development. In that respect, extractive colonization is often seen to have determined a bad start, if only in terms of tax structure and expenditure patterns, although the centralization of public revenue in consolidated state funds also laid the foundations for the formation of African states in places where these had been absent before. That said, we still know very little about comparative processes of colonial and post-colonial state formation, and even less on the transition from precolonial to colonial state structures. Moreover, research into the relationship between state building and long-term developments of living standards is still in its infancy.

State capacity can be approached from the revenue side, but also from the expenditure side. The efficiency and sectoral allocation of public expenditures are as important as the level and structure of taxes for “growing public”, and the two sides are tightly linked. At the macro level, the direction of causality between tax revenue and public spending is not univocal; further, successful state investments can enlarge the fiscal base. And at the micro level, early investments in administration and justice can determine tax collection capacity. This session welcomes papers that tease out these relationships in greater detail, applying direct or indirect comparative perspectives.

Living standards are to be understood as broadly as possible, from access to private goods (real wages, consumption, nutrition), to non-monetary aspects such as health, education and access to key utilities like clean water, energy and transport infrastructure. Beyond averages, this session welcomes papers working with innovative measurements and analyses of inequality in living standards, between colonizers and colonized, but also within these groups.

Political economy approaches, in which indigenous class structure and agency play a large role, may be applied to understand how states’ decisions were shaped across time. The historical turns of the colonial conquest, the world wars, of the great depression and of the independence era can be particularly revealing in this respect. Tracing continuities or discontinuities to present-day independent states can also help to shed light on contemporary challenges for state-building, in the economic and political dimensions. Africa has always been connected with all major regions of the world, and not only with Europe. International issues, such as changing positions in the regional/global space, in the past and in the present, are also to be considered. We will therefore also welcome contributions that take up the broader perspective of comparing trajectories of state building and living standard development in Africa with other developing areas.


  • Denis Cogneau, Paris School of Economics - IRD -EHESS,, France
  • Ewout Frankema, Wageningen University,, Netherlands

Session members

  • Gareth Austin, Cambridge University,
  • Yannick Dupraz, Warwick University,
  • Leigh Gardner, London School of Economics,
  • Abel Gwaindepi, Rhodes University,
  • Elise Huillery, Paris-Dauphine University,
  • Morten Jerven , Norwegian University of Life Sciences & Simon Fraser University,
  • Sandrine Mesplé-Somps, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD),
  • Alexander Moradi, University of Sussex,
  • Samuel Sanchez, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD),
  • Bassirou Sarr, Paris School of Economics & EHESS,
  • Marlous van Waijenburg, Northwestern University,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • , ,