Looking at the history of Ghana relative to many post-colonial African states, it appears to be quite a successful and stable nation-state, both politically and economically, compared to many other post-colonial African nations. My hypothesis is that Ghana's success may to a large extent be the result of its being administered by the British during its colonial period, rather than the French, Belgians, or Portuguese, etc: Perhaps British colonies evolved into more stable, economically successful, independent states than their counterparts who are former French, Portuguese colonies, etc. A friend of mine from Ghana confirmed my hypothesis, but had no solid evidence to back it up.

A brief survey of some African countries seems to confirm my hypothesis: I compared the history of Ghana (formerly Gold Coast under the British) with that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly "Belgian Congo"), Republic of the Congo (formerly "French Congo"), and Angola (formerly a Portuguese colony). Compared to Ghana, the non-British colonies have been plagued with long and violent civil wars and political instability, which seriously impacted their economic growth and viability,

More research into the the success and stability of other former British colonies relative to their non-British counterparts also seems to back up such a theory: For example Jamaica, under the Brits from 1655 until 1958, and Trinidad/Tobago, administered by the Brits from 1889 until 1958 - in comparison to countries such as Cuba (Spain), Haiti (France), and the Dominican Republic(France/Spain/USA for a brief periods).

But my research here is admittedly quite superficial. Does historical analysis confirm or contradict my hypothesis that former British Colonies have been more successful as post-colonial states? More generally, can we find a pattern of success in the independent states that corresponds to their former colonial administrators (not necessarily the British)?

Although this question is admittedly complex, it can be answered with empirical analysis. A capable historian or economist should be able arrive at a clear conclusion, although not all will come to the same one, as is the case with any complex question. It requires extensive research to arrive at an accurate, well documented answer, but the answer itself can be quite concise and empirically based.

To side-step the issue of when to 'stop the clock' regarding measurement of success (today; five years ago; 10 years after independence....) the best answer might take into account the sum total of a former colony's history, such that a country like Angola, now quite successful, might not be considered successful relative to Ghana, considering the long and bloody civil wars that dominate much of Angola's history. But not being a historian or economist, I am not really the one to decide on the metrics: I turn to the Historians and experts among us for an appropriate way to quantify and answer this question.

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    – ihtkwot
    Aug 6, 2013 at 2:07
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    I am accepting the answer of our friend Lennart, although he has admittedly only scratched the surface of this complex question, because he seems to be the only one with the knowledge and the moxie to even attempt to tackle it, and has done us all a service thereby. Still, I would welcome more in depth answers and perhaps an authoritative source that would help more definitively resolve this question.
    – user2590
    Aug 6, 2013 at 11:01
  • Prof. Steven Fish at Berkeley once said in a lecture that he had crunched the empirical data and there was no evidence of any sort of relationship. I have either a book of lecture notes with a cite somewhere, and will answer when I get a chance.
    – user8576
    Jan 31, 2015 at 21:31
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    What about Sudan? Zimbabwe? Nigeria? Even Kenya? Also, Congo had its share of political instability but it's certainly no Angola or DR Congo and its HDI is above that of Ghana so it's not even clear there is a clear pattern to explain in the first place.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 12, 2016 at 22:49
  • Noone knows how to control for all the other factors that aren't the identity of the colonizing power. Oct 16, 2018 at 20:00

7 Answers 7


Although this question probably can't be resolved without years of comparative study, a quick indication of the answer can be done by looking at the current GDP of the countries as a reasonable measure of "stability and success". The cases are also very different between different continents and times, as colonization changed a lot during the period. Therefore I have looked at African colonization only, as this was done during a relatively consistent time, during the late 19th century, and ended at a relatively consistent time after WWII. It was also a similar type of colonization, with little settling from the colonial powers, with the exception of South Africa and Egypt which both had very different colonial histories (and therefore are excluded).

And the only conclusion that we possibly can draw from that is that Belgium was singularly bad, as all of the countries Belgium colonized has remained impoverished, although two of them were German colonies until 1918. Congo is still very poor, and this is perhaps not surprising, considering that Belgian colonization was extra-ordinarily brutal, but on the other hand, this is just a question of one (or possibly three) countries, so one should be wary of making any conclusions at all from that.

Italy, Spain and Portugal all have one rich colony, but Italy and Spain also have one poor and Portugal three poor, so no conclusion can be drawn there either.

Then remains British and French colonies, and there the numbers are quite similar. The average PPP GDP per capita in British former colonies is around $3.300, while in French former colonies $4.000. The richest former colonies have in both cases a GDP/capita of $17.000 and $16.500 respectively, and the poorest $400 and $580. That's not enough to claim any reasonable difference.

Hence, it is impossible from this to tell any reliable difference between different colonies, and it is certainly impossible to claim that Britain was a better colonial master than other countries, which the OP suspected.

Edit: Apparently I deleted the spreadsheet with my data, sorry about that, but the conclusion still stands: Post-colonial success/status/wealth is not connected to which empire was the colonizing force.

  • 2
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    – ihtkwot
    Aug 6, 2013 at 2:07
  • 2
    Wasn't the Congo a private possession of Leopold II as the "Congo Free State"? I didn't think it was formally part of Belgium until the early 1900s.
    – Kobunite
    Aug 6, 2013 at 10:01
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    It might be interesting to find out how much having a colonial company ruling over makes a difference in how developed the country comes out after independence. Mozambique comes to mind: for most of the colonial times it was ruled by colonial companies, that were mostly interested in profit (as opposed to development of infrastructure for the natives); the Belgian Congo is also an interesting example: it was not merely considered a private territory, it was used almost exclusively to make a profit, without any consideration for the natives living within.
    – aenariel
    Aug 6, 2013 at 10:25
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    @FelixGoldberg - King Leopold, not the Belgian state used mercenaries rather than the Belgian military, and the goal was resource extraction, not political control. What political control there was in place was top-down ordered from Belgium, in contrast of the British and French policy of indirect rule, using the locals to administer to the indigenous population of the colonized territory. Apr 7, 2015 at 16:12
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    The danger in this analysis is that causation might run in the other direction. That is, the more powerful colonial power might choose to take the more populous and commercially successful areas. For instance, Belgium and Germany were late to the table and might have been 'stuck' with more marginal areas.
    – AlaskaRon
    Sep 15, 2016 at 3:26

There is in fact a small PDF available online which attempts to answer this question through detailed study of a small area of the South Pacific. The islands of Vanuatu were administered jointly by the British and French.

The author finds that "political indicators are in favor of British administration, but economic indicators are in favor of French administration".

His paper is called Is British colonization better than that of the French?: A study of Vanuatu and it's here:


  • 6
    Reminds me of a joke. Canada had the chance to inherit American efficiency, French food and British Culture. Instead they got American culture, French efficiency and British food.
    – AlaskaRon
    Sep 15, 2016 at 3:28

This poses an extraordinarily simplistic question. The histories of different 'colonies' are so utterly varied in their type and circumstances that it would be almost impossible to find useful examples for a contrasting case study. And what would be the point anyway?

'Colonies' which did particularly well, both before and after independence, are ones where there were large settler populations. For some reason 'settler communities' tend to make strong economic progress. The United States is such a 'settler community' almost entirely made up of migrants since the 18th century. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are 'settler countries'. But so is Singapore and a large portion of the population of such places as Malaysia, South Africa etc.

The settlers in Singapore and Malaysia were Chinese and Indians, who came to make their fortunes. Today they form the larger share of the bourgeoisie of those countries. The indigenous Malay population has been slower to urbanise and to industrialise.

What Britain and her liberal Empire mostly (with some obvious exceptions) provided was a good system of law and commerce and a banking sector in which business could thrive, and in which people could retain the profits from their work and endeavour. They also provided a police service and mostly a peaceful state.

Problems that have arisen on decolonisation have mostly been in those large numbers of cases where there were divided communities. As the colonists left there was a often a struggle for control between different factions. Hence since 1945 British forces have had to stand between Malays and Chinese in Malaya, Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, Jews and Moslems in Palestine, Hindus and Moslems in India, Africans and Asians in East Africa, the Indigenous people of South Arabia (Aden) and the settlers of the port city of Aden. There are plenty of other examples.

I am vastly less well informed on French and Spanish colonisation/decolonisation.

This has not answered the question because I believe that there isn't one. But it may point to a few matters that need to be considered.


I conducted a small survey of the (quite extensive) literature on this topic , and found that there are many different conclusions as to both whether and why the identity of a colonial power had an impact. Quite frankly, the number of contradictory papers I found indicates that there is no scholarly consensus on this issue, and that it remains an ongoing debate (most of the papers I found were trying to rebut opposing claims, and found totally different things with the same data). If you're curious, here is a small sample of some of the more interesting papers I found:

[Please note that I have academic access to scholarly databases; most of the links here are behind a paywall]

Blanton, Mason, and Athow (2001), in their paper Colonial Style and Post-Colonial Ethnic Conflict in Africa compare British direct rule with French indirect rule and conclude:

Results indicate that, after controlling for other salient factors, a British colonial legacy is positively associated with ethnic conflict.

Bernhard, Reenock, and Nordstrom (2004) in The Legacy of Western Overseas Colonialism on Democratic Survival conclude that:

We further find that the legacy of specific colonial powers has an important effect on survival as well. Unlike previous studies, we find that former Spanish colonies outperform British colonies when colonialism is conceptualized holistically. However, when we break colonial legacy into separate components (development, social fragmentation, and the relationship between the state and civil society), we find that the advantages former British colonies enjoy are attributable to the legacy of the state/civil society relationship. Moreover, we show that at least in the case of former British colonies, time spent under colonial rule is positively associated with democratic survival.

Lange, Mahoney, and vom Hau (2006) in Colonialism and Development: A Comparative Analysis of Spanish and British Colonies:

Our argument specifically shows that the historical processes through which colonial institutions were installed and shaped subsequent development differed dramatically for Spanish and British colonialism (see fig. 2). Spain colonized most heavily precolonial regions that were prosperous because these areas offered the greatest potential for accumulation under a mercantilist economic model. By contrast, Britain colonized most heavily precolonial regions that were less complex because these areas offered the greatest potential for capitalist accumulation. In turn, areas that were heavily colonized by Spain saw the introduction of substantial mercantilist institutions, and these institutions became important impediments to postcolonial development. Areas that were heavily colonized by Britain saw the introduction of substantial liberal institutions, and these institutions were positively associated with development. Hence, both Spanish and British colonialism reversed the fortunes of precolonial regions, but they did so in very different ways.

In Colonial Legacies and Economic Growth, Grier (1999) finds:

I also find that the level of education at the time of independence can help to explain much of the development gap between the former British and French colonies in Africa. Even correcting for the length of colonization, which has a positive influence on education levels and subsequent growth, I find support for a separate British effect on education. That is, the data imply that the British were more successful in educating their dependents than were the French. The potential for expanding this work is enormous. Broadening the sample to include the 63 countries from the original sample might help to explain differences in Spanish and British post-colonial development. Looking further at initial and current education rates could help illuminate the impact of education and its persistence over time.


Why ignore Australia, New Zealand & the United States - are they are not all former colonies of Great Britain?

The United States does particularly well, being the country with the highest GDP. They gained their independence in 1789, that is two centuries ago.

One may suppose, that most of the former colonial nations that aren't doing so well are still building their political institutions. This is the work of several generations. After large-scale economics requires strong political institutions.

One could also perhaps point out that these countries could industrialise relatively rapidly as this is the social environment that colonists came from, and who form the dominant & majority population. Whereas places like Africa or India this 'lesson' in modernity would have had to be absorbed by the indigenous population.

  • Marx on Western Australia ( marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch33.htm ) and the relatively common place findings about finance capital preceeding federation (Noel Butlin) seem to falsify your argument in the Australian case. Capital preceded political institutions. Aug 11, 2013 at 22:05
  • @russell: If it invalidates it in the Australian case, then it should invalidates in the others too. Are you talking about London finance capital funding these colonial expeditions? According to Butlins obituary 'before the publication of his major book Investment in Australian Economic Development (1964), historians saw Australia's past almost solely in terms of rural development. Noel, however, was able to show that, as early as the second half of the nineteenth century, more investment was being undertaken in urban than in rural areas, Aug 11, 2013 at 22:29
  • ...and that the public sector was a major player in this process'. The public sector surely requires a political formation? Aug 11, 2013 at 22:32
  • Connell & Irving's Class Structure in Australian History ought to explain. The "political formation" was substantially off-shore and administered as an external colonial administration. Local administration and state industry lagged behind the development in the world-system's centre until after capital formation. Representation came after capitalisation (and never mirrored the basis of capitalisation, being restricted to state or dominion governance). Also, a cursory look at UK corporations law in the 19th century shows the state lagged behind capital in the core. Aug 12, 2013 at 0:47
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    The nations mentioned had the original peoples and cultures all but wiped out by disease and genocide during the heyday of colonization. The original question, whether explicit in this or not, was asking which European Colonial power's flavor of White Supremacist rule was better than the others. There is a good question in here, tho, as to the differences between true colonization - as in the US and ANZAC - and Empire - as in India, Asia and Africa. Aug 12, 2013 at 12:59

As someone who studied in Indonesia (former colony of Dutch) and Singapore (former colony of British), I can say very well the difference lies in the education investment made by the British.

This simple slides (slide 21) shows very clearly the investment made by the British in their crown colony:

enter image description here

The Dutch, however, did not do the same for its colonies (i.e. Indonesia), since the main target was to utilize the colony to increase revenue of the VOC. There are numerous article on this issue if you can read the local language. Technically, even the textbook recorded the absence of education service for the native, unless they were willing to 'cooperate' with the Dutch.

Post-colonization-wise, it depends on the nation itself, whether they are able to utilize the 'advantage' of their education. There are cases where the educated generation is rendered meaningless due to (civil) war, too.


The Portuguese colonies were amongst the most developed. It was the scramble for their mineral resources, namely Angola's oil, which led the superpowers of the time to destabilize them, leading to civil wars and economic decline.

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