The Origins and Consequences of Spatial Inequality

Project Summary
At the heart of the development crises in many low-income countries is the problem of spatial inequality, in which public services, economic activities, and state capacity are unevenly distributed throughout a given country. The lack of what the African Development Bank refers to as “spatial inclusion” represents not only a significant barrier to economic growth and integration but is increasingly linked to civil war and state failure.


Overlay of colonial primary commodity production in Uganda in late colonialism with contemporary DHS data on household access to electricity. Base primary commodity production data comes from Atlas of Uganda (1962)

What underlies this problem? What policy interventions are effective at reducing spatial inequality? This project in collaboration with Rob Marty at W&M, Yannick Pengl at ETH-Zurich, Kyle Titlow at University of Arizona, and Nic van de Walle of Cornell addresses these questions. It analyzes the historical origins of within-country inequality, focusing on the rise of global demand for cash crops and minerals in the 19th century, European colonization and the spatial consequences of economic specialization in primary commodity production (e.g., cocoa, copper, coffee, diamonds, etc.). The highly localized nature of colonial investments in primary commodity production—in which select regions, such as the copperbelt in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), the coffee crescent around Lake Victoria in Uganda, and the cocoa zone in Gold Coast (Ghana), attracted significant economic investment, while most of the colony was largely neglected—sowed the seeds of regional inequality and societal divisions that are still felt today. This analysis not only enables us to better understand the underlying causes of spatial inequality and its effects on political instability and civil war, but to determine the degree to which policy interventions, such as democratization, economic liberalization, and foreign aid, are reversing this historical legacy and building more inclusive and integrated economies and states.

Technical Summary

This project will produce a comprehensive geospatial dataset of primary commodity production at the end of colonialism across 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with the aim of better understanding: the origins and consequences of spatial inequality in Africa; the effect of primary commodity production on ethno-political bargaining and conflict; and the impact policy interventions, such as democratization, economic liberalization, and foreign aid, have had on reducing the colonial legacy of uneven development. Toward this end, we are systematically georeferencing and digitizing maps, atlases, census records and economic reports produced by the colonial governments in the late colonial
period (1945-1960) as well as contemporaneous academic sources. This highly granular data on areas of cash crop production, mining, and other primary economic production will be generated at a spatial resolution of 5×5 km as well as aggregated up to 25×25 km and current second-level administrative units. We will combine this data on primary commodity production with contemporary geospatial data on electrification, access to public services, conflict events and violence, ethnic inclusion, survey data on perceptions of state capacity and legitimacy, and agricultural production to unravel the path dependent effects of colonial economic extraction and change over time. We anticipate that the data and visualization of the data will serve as valuable resource for students, scholars and policy-makers alike, who are interested in better understanding the link between economic geography, state-building and long-run development.

This project is supported by a 2016 research award from the National Science Foundation’s Political Science Program.