Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Slavery: Modern day effects

Could there be a direct link that can be proven and backed by numbers about the correlation between African countries most ravaged by slavery and those that are the most underdeveloped today?

Even if there were one, can it be verifiably measured?

Assistant Professor of economics at Harvard University, Nathan Nunn believes that the African countries with the biggest slave exports are by and large the countries with the lowest incomes now.

That relationship, according to him, is not a coincidence - one actually helped to cause the other.

It's a sweeping, ambitious recasting of slavery's horrific commerce. It is also a work of risky estimates and serious statistical gymnastics. Somehow, Nunn had to account for some 17 million slaves by their ethnic origins - a task some historians say can't accurately be done, but that Nunn nonetheless undertook, mining slavery data compiled over decades by other scholars. He also had to prove that his findings of cause and effect weren't polluted by a long list of variables that seem likely to have affected Africa's economies in the last 600 years. Nunn, a 33-year-old assistant professor, didn't shy away from this either, devising ways to control for everything from climate to natural resources to geography to Islamic influence to a country's particular brand of colonialism.

For the moment, Nunn said, he can't say what the implications of his research might be. But his first, tentative steps in that direction are intriguing. Meshing his numbers with those of other scholars, Nunn has found that the countries he identified as having the most slaves taken are also the countries that have the most ethnic fractionalization today. It may well be that the ethnic fault lines driving Africa's worst conflicts have powerful roots in slavery, which required Africans to turn on one another in order to capture one another, severely weakening communal ties and preventing the spread of services like education, health facilities, and access to water across a large population

The Boston Globe explains the otherwise hard to read mathematical paper with a great degree of clarity. For those numerically and statistically inclined, here is a pdf link to the 32 page paper.

SignandSight puts it right when it made the following comment on this effort:

For one, it seems to support arguments long held in some development camps that the best use of foreign aid dollars lies not in conventional relief efforts - the food drops and water wells and antimalarial nets - but in long-term investments to rebuild economic and political institutions.

Image from the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.
Description (from source above): Two slaves against a backdrop of sugar fields. Woman, on right, is seated under a tree, with basket filled with fruits and vegetables; she wears bead bracelets, armlets, earrings, and a large bead necklace. The man, wearing a loin cloth, holds a spade in one hand and a cutlass or knife in the other, with a bunch of sugar cane under his arm. Letters A-D, very briefly identify the images in this scene. As translated: A, Negro; B, Negress; C, Sugar Cane; D, A "pagaal," or basket for carrying produce

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