20 juillet 2020
Ecrit par WID.world

Income Inequality under Colonial Rule

Income Inequality under Colonial Rule:

Evidence from French Algeria, Cameroon, Tunisia, and Vietnam and comparisons with British colonies 1920-1960

In this paper, Facundo Alvaredo, Denis Cogneau and Thomas Piketty assess income inequality across French and British colonial empires between 1920 and 1960. They examine the case studies of French Algeria, Tunisia, Cameroon, and Vietnam income inequality using income tax tabulations. They compare the results to that of the British colonies and dominions, and to the metropoles. The authors examine whether some of the colonized, including non-European minorities, were rich enough to compete income-wise with European colonists. They also focus on European settlers or expatriates, and examine how they compared with their counterparts living in the metropoles, and to which extent inequality among them could explain some of the patterns of overall colonial inequality.

Key results

  • Inequality was high in colonies, as measured by top income shares. It fell after WWII, but stabilized at much higher levels than in mainland France or the United Kingdom in the 1950s.
  • In terms of income, only a minority of autochthons could compete with European settlers or expatriates who comprised the bulk of top income earners, particularly in Africa.
  • Top income shares were no higher in settlement colonies, not only because those territories were wealthier but also because the average European settler was less rich than the average European expatriate.
  • Inequality between Europeans in colonies was similar to (or even below) that of the metropoles.
  • In settlement colonies, the post-WWII fall in income inequality can be explained by a fall in inequality between Europeans, mirroring that of the metropoles, and does not imply that the European/autochthon income gap was reduced.

>> Click here to read the paper


Knowing more about colonial inequality is important to inform present-day debates around the damages done by colonialism and their reparation. It is also important for understanding what the newly independent nations inherited with the end of the colonial rule, and for assessing how the diverse ideological pathways they followed were able to reduce inequality by breaking with colonial structures. Finally, European societies were not immune from this colonial inequality, as both the return of European settlers and the inflows of migrants from former colonies have impacted their political space, and postcolonial questions continue to feed into the democratic debate.

Figure: Income Inequality under French and British Colonial Rule

Top 0.1% income shares in the French and British colonial Empires (1920-1960)

Top 0.1% income share, French & British colonial empire - World Inequality Lab



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Olivia Ronsain: olivia.ronsain@wid.world; +33 7 63 91 81 68