Economics at your fingertips  

Measuring historical income inequality in Africa: What can we learn from social tables?

Jutta Bolt, Ellen Hillbom, Michiel de Haas and Federico Tadei

No 16218, CEPR Discussion Papers from C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers

Abstract: Limited knowledge of African inequality trajectories hampers our understanding of the drivers of heterogeneous inequality outcomes in Africa today, and leads to a major omission in debates about global inequality. In recent years, African economic history has advanced towards the reconstruction of full income distributions of African economies using ‘social tables’. In this paper, we take stock of the social table literature covering the cases of Botswana, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Senegal, and Uganda, 1910s to 1960s. Our contribution is twofold. First, we investigate commensurability and pursue methodological harmonisation. Second, we propose a new analytical framework to study income inequality in colonial Africa, revolving around export-oriented commercialisation and colonialism. We apply this framework to the six cases. Tracing country-level inequality trends and levels using three different inequality metrics, we find that i) inequality increased as commercialisation progressed and ii) relative levels of inequality differed substantially and were linked to European settlers and colonial institutions. Using inequality decompositions by sector and race, we further refine these insights. We find that capital-intensive commodities were associated with larger inequality in the self-employed sector and that the presence of European settlers and a large colonial administration increased the salience of race as a major fault line.

Keywords: Inequality; Social tables; Colonial africa (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: N37 O15 O55 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2021-06
References: Add references at CitEc
Citations: Track citations by RSS feed

Downloads: (external link) (application/pdf)
CEPR Discussion Papers are free to download for our researchers, subscribers and members. If you fall into one of these categories but have trouble downloading our papers, please contact us at

Related works:
This item may be available elsewhere in EconPapers: Search for items with the same title.

Export reference: BibTeX RIS (EndNote, ProCite, RefMan) HTML/Text

Persistent link:

Ordering information: This working paper can be ordered from

Access Statistics for this paper

More papers in CEPR Discussion Papers from C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers Centre for Economic Policy Research, 33 Great Sutton Street, London EC1V 0DX.
Bibliographic data for series maintained by ().

Page updated 2023-07-09
Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:16218