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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

LSE Research Online Documents on Economics from London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library

Abstract: A rapidly growing body of research examines the ways in which climatic variability influence 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 (1920-1939). 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; rural livelihoods; economic history; colonialism; social distress; tropical agriculture; agricultural commercialization; environmental history (search for similar items in EconPapers)
JEL-codes: D74 F54 N17 N57 Q17 (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2017-06-01
New Economics Papers: this item is included in nep-agr, nep-dev, nep-env and nep-his
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Published in World Development, 1, June, 2017, 94, pp. 346-365. ISSN: 0305-750X

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Journal Article: Weather Shocks and Agricultural Commercialization in Colonial Tropical Africa: Did Cash Crops Alleviate Social Distress? (2017) Downloads
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