After looking up some statistics it appears that former British colonies ( Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Singapore,...) seem to be better of than colonies of let's say France (Morocco, Algeria,...), Germany (Cameroon, Togo,...), the Netherlands (Indonesia, New Guinea) and Belgium (Zaire/Congo). Of course compared to colonies in the neighborhood.

Is there some consensus on this topic? What are significant differences in how the British governed their colonies compared to other countries? What made this approach more successful?

This question is not about the life conditions of the native people in these colonies, which was in many cases dramatic.

A bold rephrase of the question would could thus be: based on historical evidence, what conditions should one look for (to pick a good place) and how should one manage that colony to be successful. as a thought experiment. Please don't take this question as a provocation, it's more scientific research in what caused colonies to succeed or fail.

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    Nice cherries you've picked there; what about Sierra Leone, or Zimbabwe? Jan 28, 2015 at 3:12
  • Indonesia is doing rather well... New Guinnea isn't close to being the hell hole most sub-Saharan African countries are.
    – jwenting
    Jan 28, 2015 at 5:28
  • Don't forget that the US is a former British colony :-)
    – jamesqf
    Jan 28, 2015 at 18:35
  • @congusbongus: that's where the "in the neighborhood" comes in. Both countries are indeed not the best places to live, but still outperform Congo and (at least Zimbabwe) Togo according to the HDI. Jan 28, 2015 at 18:57
  • Based on your rephrase, you might consider asking this at econ.se. I think they will point you to Acemoglu on institutions and La Porta, Lopez-de-Silanes, Shleifer, and Vishny on legal origins
    – two sheds
    Jan 28, 2015 at 19:32

2 Answers 2


The English colonies you mentioned ended up better because they tended to be better to begin with. The successful ones had either a lot of structure or few natives. India and Singapore had established economies and political systems before the British got there. They didn't need to be built from the ground up. Cape Colony (south africa) was a dutch colony for 150 years before the British got there and there was also something to tie in to. Australia and Canada had few natives.

The French colonies had a lot of natives without a lot of structure. The Saharan ones also had more nomads and raiding was a common part of the nomadic economy. These nomads had to be contended with. Rather than adapting an existing system to fit their needs, the French had to impose a new one from scratch.

The Belgian Congo was very poorly managed. The Germans didn't rule their colonies for very long and didn't invest as much as the British did in them. The Dutch colonies tended to be stolen by the British but they tended to be pretty good while they lasted.

  • Well, I think the concept of "India" as a unified country (or rather three countries nowadays) was pretty much built from the ground up, both by and in opposition to the British.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 28, 2015 at 18:42
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    I think it is difficult to argue Singapore had an established economy before the British got there in any substantial sense. Under British rule its population jumped from 1,000 in 1819 to 10,000 in 1825 to 100,000 in 1869.
    – Henry
    Jan 29, 2015 at 0:59
  • The British sort of rebooted Singapore. Although it had been destroyed before the British got there it was still a good place for a port. Once the new port was restablished, it returned naturally to the broader trading economy of the region. Jan 29, 2015 at 5:14

I seriously doubt you can make any such generalisation. Case in point, Zimbadwe is one of the worst countries in the world, when under British rule it was affluent. It used to be the bread basket of Africa, now it's starving. And that has nothing to do with the fact that it was British before, and everything with the way it's being run now.
And the same is true of everywhere else pretty much. Indonesia is doing rather well, despite the way the Japanese ripped everything that could be fit into a cargo ship from the country during WW2.
OTOH despite being very rich in natural resources and having received massive aid over the decades, Cote d'Ivoire is dirt poor.

What most of these countries have in common is that they pretty much reverted to the state they were in prior to the colonial powers coming there.
Indonesia was a mostly peaceful nation of farmers and traders, Zimbadwe en Cote d'Ivoire were scenes of near constant tribal warfare.
Of course many people don't want to hear that, and will call you a racist for pointing out the truth, but there you have it. The current situation in those countries has pretty little to do with the way they were run during the colonial era, and much more with the mentality of the people that were there before and still are there now.
Most all the colonial era did was give them a bit of infrastructure to build on if they so chose after independence. And yes, the British colonies mostly got more of that than the French ones, but if they ruined or ignored it after independence (as happened in general in sub-Saharan Africa, far less so in Asia) you can't blame that on the colonial power that left those roads and other structures behind, and the trained people.

  • Zimbadwe en Cote d'Ivoire were scenes of near constant tribal warfare. (sic). You forget other issues, like social justice (Zimbabwe has less than 1% white population, but by the 1990s it still owned more than 70% of arable land). Yes, it seems the Government intervention was chaotic and did more harm than good, but such situations make difficult distinguish between cause & effect (unequalities -> rise of populist government -> bad policies).
    – SJuan76
    Jan 28, 2015 at 9:43
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    Also, the colonial era setup "artificial" states that forcibly united several disjoint nations, and which had no tradition/experience in common government, and no trained administrative corps (no, the colonial powers did not leave many experts because the experts were mostly European). Once the military foreign forces left, it is not strange that some of them collapsed due to different tribes trying to use the state factionally.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 28, 2015 at 9:47
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    @SJuan76: Though it wouldn't be hard to find people who make at least superficially credible claims that a good part of Zimbabwe's troubles are in fact the result of taking that land away from the white farmers.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 28, 2015 at 18:39
  • @SJuan76 the trouble in Zimbadwe didn't even start until the Mugabe regime started disowning white farmers and giving their land to its supporters in payment for helping Mugabe become dictator. Supporters who had no knowledge of farming, and no intention to do actual work on those farms. As a result the agricultural output of the country collapsed, unemployment went through the roof, the currency collapsed, etc. etc.. The social injustice was Mugabe disowning those farms, which employed a large part of the population (both white and black) with decent jobs.
    – jwenting
    Jan 29, 2015 at 5:39
  • @jwenting Everytime I listen to something like that I have to question if, before that, "things got well for Zimbabwe" means anything other than "things got well for the 1% who held Zimbabwe". Anyway, I am not defending Mugabe's intervention (read my first comment), but pointing that the massive unequality made it specially easy for Mugabe to present a winning platform just on idea of land distribution. Of course, the 1% thought there was no need to distribute wealth without acknowledging they were just a product of the colonial era that was gone.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 29, 2015 at 8:14

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