Research project State Building and State Capacity

Researchers: Denis Cogneau, Yannick Dupraz, Elisa Grandi, Pierre-Cyrille Hautcoeur, Justine Knebelmann, Sandrine Mesplé-Somps, Zhexun Mo

This project attempts to build a new political economy of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is based on the French case – yet with other colonial empires in mind.

The project hypothesizes that colonialism was mainly beneficial to a minority of politically and economically influential actors in both the colonizing and colonized societies. The success and evolution of pro-colonial coalitions explain colonialism’s longevity and evolution. As colonialism was a global phenomenon, we consider the ‘broader plan’ rather than focus on a single colonized region; indeed, several agents were involved or represented multiple territories, so colonial plans for one place were not independent of those for another. Furthermore, previous analyses of colonialism have not addressed the agency of the colonized themselves–even if only the local elites–however constrained and limited their space of action. Additionally, an important premise for the research is that local contexts mattered for the implementation of colonial plans, and colonizers had to adapt and find local connections in order to enforce their rule, ensure their investments, or spread their religion.

This project builds two large databases covering the period of the “second” French colonial Empire (1830-1962): a first database on the administration and the development of colonies and a second on firms operating in colonies. We complement our recent work on colonial states and colonial inequalities with the study of private capital and its profits in order to reconstruct the distribution of the benefits and costs of the Empire across colonial capitalists, settlers, trading minorities, and indigenous elites and populations. Network individual data allows us to characterize the role of colonial lobbies.

A second strand of the project examines how the political economy of colonialism survived after its official end and how its analysis helps to understand the present state of the world. Independent states inherited the structures of colonial states; these structures could only be gradually reformed. Several colonial firms still exist and have paved the way for new investments from the former colonial power

Networks also had some intergenerational persistence. International migration flows, but also capital flight, are still very much oriented towards colonial power. Yet this ‘postcolonial pull’ is nevertheless challenged by new competitors – be they states, firms or churches. More generally, economic development and inequality are path dependent, yet postcolonial trajectories were diverse; in particular, each country managed its colonial legacy of dualistic structures in the markets for labour, land, credit, or in legal justice in its own way. We hypothesize that idiosyncratic differences in the political economy of the colonial period, as well as in the specifics of decolonization account for part of this diversity of postcolonial paths. These differences emerged from an interaction between pre-colonial conditions and the patterns of colonialism itself. After independence, policies of nationalization of capital and/or land, colonial debt default, departure from the currency peg, refusal of bilateral aid or technical assistance, trade protectionism, and import-substitution attempts were implemented by countries to widely varying degrees. Some of these policies were reversed with the privatization and liberalization of economies during structural adjustment in the mid-1980s and 1990s. The project assesses the extent to which these transformations, in combination with the competition from other powers, have weakened the colonial footprint in terms of states resources and policies, capital ownership, and inequality.

On-going research

Knebelmann, Justine. “The (Un)Hidden Wealth of the City: Property Taxation under Weak Enforcement in Senegal.”

Cogneau, Denis, and Zhexun Mo. “The Political Economy of Conscription and Taxation in French Colonial Africa.”

Cogneau, Denis, Yannick Dupraz, Justine Knebelmann, and Sandrine Mesplé-Somps. “Taxation in Africa from Colonial Times to Present.”

Cogneau, Denis, Sebastian Garcia Cornejo,Elisa Grandi, Pierre-Cyrille Hautcoeur, David Smadja, Alexia Van Rij. French Capitalism and Colonialism. Colonial Lobbies.

Working papers

Alvaredo, Facundo, Denis Cogneau, and Thomas Piketty. 2020. “Income Inequality under Colonial Rule: Evidence from French Algeria, Cameroon, Tunisia, and Vietnam and Comparisons with British Colonies 1920-1960.”

Lucas Chancel, Denis Cogneau, Amory Gethin, Alix Myczkowski, andAnne-Sophie Robilliard. 2020. How Large Are African Inequalities? Towards Distributional National Accounts in Africa, 1990-2017.”

Cogneau, Denis, Yannick Dupraz and Sandrine Mesplé-Somps. 2018. “African states and development in historical perspective: Colonial public finances in British and French West Africa.”


Cogneau, Denis, Yannick Dupraz and Sandrine Mesplé-Somps. 2020. “Fiscal Capacity and Dualism in Colonial States: The French Empire 1830-1962,” Journal of Economic History, forthcoming.

Cogneau, Denis, Léo Czajka, and Kenneth Houngbedji. 2017. “The Triumphant Elephant’s Return? Growth and Income Inequality in Côte d’Ivoire (1988-2015).Afrique Contemporaine No 263-264 (3): 221–25.