Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Africa was underpopulated

There is a common perception that Africa is overpopulated. Historically, this was certainly not true, as there was such abundance of land relative to population that land had no value. In fact one traditional measures how well a society was developed in history by looking at population density, and it was very low for Africa.

I am mentioning this as I am reading a paper by James Fenske who is out to test some theories that, among others, the poor institutions of Africa originate in low population density. The logic is the following. If land has no value, it cannot be used as collateral or as a store of wealth. States could not tax land and thus had little means. Property rights were not defined as there was not property to give rights to. Wage employment was substituted by coerced labor and slavery.

Fenske tests this by using data from an ethnographic atlas and a model with endogenous institutions. And its predictions that land rights appear where population is more dense and/or where agricultural yields are higher holds true. He also looks at he Egba of Nigeria, who have abundant land but well established property rights. That institution emerged from their time of immigration, where land was scarce.

Institutions take a long time to change and Africa has poor institutions. Understanding where they come from can help in reforming them for the better. And by many accounts, Africa is still underpopulated. Following the results above, Africa still has a long way to go to reform its institutions.

1 comment:

VIlfredo said...

Seeing the poor quality of data nowadays in Africa, can we rely at all on data from pre-colonial times?