Colonialism and Indian Famines: A Response

Tamoghna Halder criticized one of my writings on nineteenth-century Indian famines. Halder distorts my views and wrongly implies that I suppressed data. He misreads the very nature of the Indian famine debate, thinking it is about facts. It is not. It is about method, about how economic historians and development scholars should read the history of climatic shocks. The piece demands a response and a clarification of the issues involved.

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Colonialism and the Indian Famines: A response to Tirthankar Roy

Responding to Sullivan and Hickel’s recently published research article (in World Development) and an opinion article (in Al Jazeera), Tirthankar Roy, points out how the authors are wrong in claiming that British colonial policies caused several famines in India. All that is fine, except that these articles neither investigate nor come up with any original claim regarding the causes of famines in colonial India. The central claim in their research article is that capitalism did not necessarily result in an improvement of human welfare in the 19th century – contrary to the relatively popular belief that it did. In the opinion piece, they argue the same, but solely with a focus on the negative impact of British colonial policies in India in terms of excess deaths, decline in wages and living conditions. In order to support this distinct set of claims, among other supporting evidence and quantitative techniques, Sullivan and Hickel cite one existing claim (from prior literature) that colonial policies induced multiple famines in India. And yet, as the term colonialism has become a triggering point for Roy in recent years, he titles his shadow boxing exercise as “Colonialism did not cause the Indian famines”. If the intention of Roy is to refute Sullivan and Hickel’s original claim, he fails at it miserably. If the intention of Roy is to weaken Sullivan and Hickel’s set of supporting evidence, one may argue that he does so at least partially, but that’s true only for the opinion piece (and not the research article). However, I will argue in this response why Roy fails to achieve even that! This leaves one to speculate Sir Tirthankar Roy’s real intentions, which is not the task of the current article.

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A Multilateral International Monetary System

By Paulo L. dos Santos and Devika Dutt

“One of the chief contributions to peace that the Bretton Woods program offers is that it will free the small and even the middle-sized nations from the danger of economic aggression by more powerful neighbours. The lesser nation will no longer be obliged to look to a single powerful country for monetary support or capital for development, and have to make dangerous political and economic concessions in the process. Political independence in the past has often proved to be sham when economic independence did not go with it.” —Henry Morgenthou Jr (1945)

The world economy has a Dollar problem. Reliance on the currency of a single country as the world’s chief way to organise trade, carry out financial settlements, and store value creates a series of inequitable economic imbalances and policy tensions—both within the US and across the global economy. It bestows disproportionate economic and political power on the US government and financial institutions; exposes world trade and finance to instability and disruptions originating in the Dollar zone; imposes huge costs on the world’s small and even middle-sized nations; and fuels disproportionate growth in the US financial sector, bolstering its influence in that country’s political economy.

A Historical Problem

This problem is not new. In fact, the inability to develop an equitable and genuinely multilateral international monetary system is one of capitalism’s most striking institutional failures, going back to the early days of the industrial revolution. The gold standard of that time and its successors have always privileged some economies at the expense of others, and created policy biases favouring the interests of creditors and capital, at the expense of debtors and wage earners. 

Only once in the history of capitalism did policy-makers from leading capitalist powers even consider the possibility of building a genuinely multilateral, equitable system: during the 1943-44 debates on the post-World-War-II economic order. But despite the aspirations and statements of participants like John M Keynes and then-US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthou Jr, the Bretton Woods conference led to the creation of a system centred on the US Dollar, under which foreign central banks could present dollars to the Federal Reserve for exchange into gold. 

That system effectively charged US authorities with the supply of the world’s ultimate international reserves. In this task they were constrained only by the willingness of central banks in other states to hold Dollars instead of gold. As French Finance Minister Giscard d’Estaing put it in the 1960s, this arrangement defined an exorbitant privilege for the US economy, which enjoyed a lot of space for effectively issuing Dollars to acquire goods and assets overseas.

By the late 1960s, it became clear that the US economy could no longer uphold its obligations under the Bretton Woods system. Its steady loss of competitiveness in international trade, fiscal pressures from its protracted, losing war in Vietnam, and increases in social spending in response to domestic political turmoil, led to growing trade deficits, mass outflows of Dollars, and concerns that US authorities would not be able to meet foreign demand for convertibility of greenbacks into gold. In response, the US unilaterally abandoned its commitment to convertibility in 1971.

Coming amidst a series of successful national liberation and anti-colonial struggles across the world, the US’s inability to sustain the Bretton Woods system fed hopes that a new, equitable international monetary order could be constructed. The 1974 call by the United Nations for a New International Economic Order explicitly pointed to the need for a new monetary system centered on the “promotion of the development of the developing countries and the adequate flow of real resources to them” as means to dismantle “the remaining vestiges of colonial domination” and removing the obstacles in the way of international convergence in measures of economic development and living standards.

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Land and the Mortgage: History, Culture, Belonging

By Daivi Rodima-Taylor and Parker Shipton

The mortgaging of land, a risky practice usually treated as just an economic and legal contract, has needed a broader set of perspectives for a fuller, more humanist understanding. Most of the existing scholarly literature on land and mortgages has been written by economists and legal specialists, reflecting the perspectives of their disciplinary traditions. Lacking are assessments from a wider range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, drawing upon historical experiences, cultural meanings, and locally informed perspectives.

Our recent edited volume, drawing on historical and observational research in different parts of the world, is meant to help fill that gap. It examines mortgaging as a social and cultural phenomenon to show its origins, variation, and effects on human lives and communities. Here anthropologists, historians, and economists explore archival, printed, and ethnographic evidence about mortgage. The book shows how mortgages affect people on the ground, where local forms of mutuality mix with larger bureaucracies. Tracing origins of land titling, pledging, and the mortgage in over millennia and incorporating findings from authors’ original field research, the book explores effects of government, bank, and aid agency attempts and impositions meant to encourage mortgage lending and borrowing.  It shows how these mix in practice, in different languages, currencies, and contexts, with locally rooted understandings, and how all parties have sought, and too often failed, to make adjustments. The outcomes of mortgage in Africa, Europe, Asia, and America challenge economic development orthodoxies, calling for a human-centered exploration of this age-old institution.  It must take account, we insist, of emotions, vulnerabilities, and histories of unexpected outcomes, as shown in different societies, cultures, and environmental and political conditions.

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The Malformation of West Africa

In 1927, Ladipo Solanke – co-founder of the West African Students Union (WASU) – published a book in which he argued that “It took the white race a thousand years to arrive at their present level of advance: it took the Japanese, a Mongol race, 50 years to catch up with the white race, there is no reason why we West Africans, a Negro race, should not catch up with the Aryans and the Mongols in one quarter of a century.” (Solanke, 1927: 58). All that would be needed to achieve this, for Solanke, would be “a strong self-determination to take up and money to back up,” as well as active cooperation among West Africans. Sir Henry J. Lightfoot-Boston, in an article titled Fifty Years Hence, prophesied a federation of West African territories by 1976 (Boahen, 1982: 40).

The fulfilment of such grand visions has continued to elude the region for decades. West Africans, and indeed many from outside the region, have not only underestimated the difficulty of development in general and in the region in particular, but have understated how crucial it is to examine the difficulties within a regional framework.

Developmental and Regional Difficulties

In the case of the former, the worldwide development experience since the 1960s and the multitude of crises in West Africa have demonstrated that development and stability are not merely matters of “political will” or “strong self-determination”. Particularly for West Africa, there is a reason why the great empires and societies of the interior (the Western Sudan) which had the highest levels of integration with the rest of the world, elite Arabo-literacy rates and the largest empires in the pre-Atlantic period now rank the highest in poverty rates and the lowest in economic production, anglo-literacy rates, and many other measures of human development.

There is a reason why West Africa had the highest incidence of military coups in Africa following political independence (McGowan, 2003: 355); why the region is a major center of diffusive terrorism on the continent; and why it is experiencing a current climate of violence between farmers and pastoralists that is “unprecedented in modern times” (Brottem, 2021: 2). There is a reason why West Africa, along with Central Africa, has the highest transport costs and lowest transport quality in a continent which has the highest transport costs in the world (Teravaninthorn and Raballand, 2009: 17).

There is a reason why, according to the latest attempt to quantify political settlements of developing countries (Schulz and Kelsall, 2020), West Africa ranks the lowest in Africa in terms of virtually all the variables identified by Whitfield et al. (2015) as critical for industrial policy success. Yet presidential elections and development discourse within nations in West Africa continue to be dominated by simplistic narratives of “good governance”, “corruption” and “political will”.

With regard to understating the importance of adopting a regional lens, this has been the case since the late colonial period when self-government began to be extended to the colonies on a territorial rather than regional basis. The movements for West African cooperation fostered by the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), its eventual rival, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and student organizations such as the West African Students Union (WASU) and the Fédération des étudiants d’Afrique noire en France (FEANF) (Black African Students Federation in France) went into decline in West Africa as nationalist territorialism spread across the region in response to the expanded opportunities for legislative engagement which followed colonial acquiescence to some degree of self-rule (Boahen, 1982: 15). Efforts at creating regional federations, as pre-eminently envisaged by Kwame Nkrumah, did not succeed, and faded away after the fall of Nkrumah in 1966 (Serra, 2014: 21-22). Since then, “Although rhetorical support for integration exists, there is no dominant personality to articulate a vision and turn it into a crusade the way Nkrumah once did.” (Lavergne and Daddieh, 1997: 105). There is also an absence of an “integration culture” in the region, among governments, business communities and ordinary people (Bundu, 1997: 38).

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Walter Rodney’s Lost Book: One Hundred Years of Development in Africa

By Leo Zeilig.

One of the most astonishing books that Walter Rodney – the Guyanese revolutionary and historian – ever wrote was published several years after he was assassinated on 13 June 1980. The story of this book and how it came to be published is almost as remarkable as the life of the revolutionary himself. In 1978, Rodney was working as a full-time activist of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. The WPA was a revolutionary organisation seeking to unite the African and Indian working class in the highly divided country, then run by the brutal Forbes Burnham. Rodney was the group’s principal organiser and intellectual, and to support himself and his family, and to fundraise for the WPA, he travelled overseas to teach and work.

One trip to Germany in 1978 shows us how his last book came to be. Rodney travelled from Guyana to Hamburg in April of that year. He was already the celebrated and outspoken author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and his arrival was eagerly anticipated. He had been invited by the radical German scholar, Rainer Tetzlaff, to teach a course on the history of African development at the University of Hamburg.

The lecture course Rodney was employed to teach was titled, ‘African Development, 1878-1978’, and comprised, according to the one-page programme, ‘(i) a brief introduction to development concepts; (ii) a survey of African colonial economies with special reference to East and West Africa; and (iii) an examination of post-colonial developments in Kenya and Tanzania.’ According to the brief programme there were going to be twelve lectures, comprising, ‘The debate on development concepts in Africa’ and ‘Post-colonial development strategies’.1

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National Fiscal Redistribution as “International” Development Assistance

The histories of international development and foreign aid often focus on aid between independent nations. Williams’ (2013: 234) history of international development aid only begins from the British Colonial Development Act of 1929. Markovits, Strange and Tingley’s (2019) history of foreign aid focuses on aid between “nations” or empires. Helleiner (2014), for instance, traces the origins of multilateral development finance proposals to China’s Sun Yat-sen in 1919.

There is, however, a major problem with these histories. Their starting points reveal a methodological nationalist approach. The history of states and societies since the modern era, is however more complex. The early modern era is well known for the spate of state consolidations and national formations. It may be argued that intra-national transfers within modernizing nations may represent important forms of regional development assistance that have been left out of the consideration of the history of development assistance.

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What You Exported Matters: Persistence in Productive Capabilities across Two Eras of Globalization

This blog was first published on the Rebuilding Macroeconomics website.

By Isabella Weber, Tom Westland and Maya McCollum

“The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep…” This was how John Maynard Keynes described the globalisation of the Belle Epoque before the First World War. London, and by extension Britain, was at the centre of the world economy: not just a global manufacturing powerhouse, but also the ruler of a vast colonial domain upon which the sun famously never set. The global division of labour was stark: Britain and other Western nations largely produced manufactured goods. But they also exported a whole range of temperate agricultural goods like wheat, beef and barley. Elsewhere in the European colonial empires, products like cotton, cocoa and coffee were exported, often at very low prices and sometimes with forced labour, to sate a growing demand in the global economic core for tropical luxuries. 

More than a century has passed since World War I heralded the collapse of this world order. Today, another globalization wave that has shaped the world since the 1980s is ebbing. The question we ask in our ESRC Rebuilding Macroeconomics project What Drives Specialisation? A Century of Global Export Patterns is simple: what is the legacy of the First Globalization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the economic fortunes of countries during the Second Globalization? Or in other words, to what extent have countries’ positions in the international economic order been persistent across the two globalizations with some trapped at the bottom and others floating on top?

To answer this question, we have assembled a large new database of global commodity exports from 1897-1906. We exploit the fact that this period was the high point of colonial trade statistics and use a large variety of primary sources in five languages. To the best of our knowledge, ours is the most ambitious census of world trade for the previous globalization to date. This allows us to investigate the long-term wealth of nations in ways that aren’t possible with GDP data. The latter is sparse and unreliable for large parts of the world before the Second World War.

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