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Weather Shocks and Agricultural Commercialization in Colonial Tropical Africa: Did Cash Crops Alleviate Social Distress?

Kostadis Papaioannou () and Michiel de Haas

World Development, 2017, vol. 94, issue C, 346-365

Abstract: A rapidly growing body of research examines the ways in which climatic variability influences economic and societal outcomes. This study investigates how weather shocks triggered social distress in British colonial Africa. Further, it intervenes in a long-standing and unsettled debate concerning the effects of agricultural commercialization on the abilities of rural communities to cope with exogenous shocks. We collect qualitative evidence from annual administrative records to explore the mechanisms linking weather extremes to harvest failures and social distress. We also conduct econometric testing on a novel panel dataset of 143 administrative districts across west, south-central, and east Africa in the Interwar Era (1920–39). Our findings are twofold. First, we find robust evidence that rainfall anomalies (both drought and excessive precipitation) are associated with spikes in imprisonment (our proxy for social distress). We argue that the key causal pathway is the loss of agricultural income, which results in higher imprisonment for theft, unrest, debt, and tax default. Second, we find that the impact of weather shocks on distress is partially mitigated by the cultivation of export crops. Our findings suggest that, even in the British colonial context, smallholder export crop cultivation led to higher private incomes as well as greater public investment. Our findings speak to a topic of considerable urgency today as the process of global climate change accelerates, generating more severe and unpredictable climatic extremes. An increased understanding and identification of adaptive and mitigating factors would assist in targeting policy interventions and designing adaptive institutions to support vulnerable rural societies.

Keywords: Africa; weather shocks; economic history; climate vulnerability; food crisis; agricultural commercialization (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2017
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