Economic History

Impacts of colonial rule on human capital in Africa

Avi BRAM (2016), London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc Political Economy of Late Development.

The colonial era saw a great expansion in formal schooling in Africa, but provision was not uniform across the continent. An article from the late colonial period in the British broadsheet, The Times, provides a valuable primary source for understanding the place of formal education in Africa. The article by the Times’s correspondent in Nairobi, “Kenya’s Finance Deficit” (21/11/1953), reports on a debate in the Kenyan legislature concerning the territorial budget deficit and a recent trip to London by E. A. Vasey, the Member for Finance.

Mr Vasey’s visited London to ask for budgetary support for the emergency spending arising from the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising. In discussions with British government officials and MPs he had also requested loans for African education, but these requests were unsuccessful. The article attributes this to a reluctance on the part of officials to “embark on anything so unorthodox”. This suggests that the British government did not see widespread educational provision as a significant plank of its colonial policy. There may be some ambiguity here, as ‘unorthodox’ may also refer to a departure from economic policy orthodoxy: i.e. it is the funding of education from loans rather than taxation – not the education provision per se – that is unorthodox.

However, there is further evidence in the source that public education for Africans was considered novel. Mr Vasey is quoted arguing that “if we are going to have peace… one of the essential things is to have literate Africans who can understand English and to whom we can convey our ideas properly”, implying that the need for universal education was not already part of the political consensus.

This finding fits with existing historical research on colonial rule in Africa, which finds that the vast majority of formal schooling at the time was provided by missionaries, not the state. Frankema calculates that in 1938, 95.5% of school pupils in British colonial Africa were in mission schools[1]. School enrolment in colonial Africa was not correlated with spending by the state, but it was correlated with whether a territory facilitated missionary activity. The 1940s and 50s were a time of greater social spending in Africa, a shift in policy characterised as ‘Welfare Colonialism’. However, school enrolment rose by only 11 percentage points on average across British colonies between 1938-1960, which means that missionary activity remained a major provider of education[2]. The Times article implies that public education for Africans in Kenya was still a novel idea in 1953, even by this point Kenya had 25% primary school enrolment. This is consistent with mission schools providing the majority of schooling in Kenya (alternatively, it may be that British audiences – the target for this newspaper article – were not aware of Welfare Colonialist policies).

Furthermore, the article suggests that fiscal constraints, which severely limited colonial spending on education in the early 1900’s, were still an issue in 1953. The Kenyan legislature debates “whether there should be higher taxation or a reduction in social services until the finances of the colony were rebuilt by concentrating on development projects which would increase the national income”. This shows considerable continuity with the early colonial fiscal state, which Gardner has shown was characterised by low taxes and spending, an aversion to deficits (as these would lead to intervention from the British government’s Treasury) and prioritisation of security, infrastructure, and investments that yielded short-run returns over social spending[3]. Although security is not mentioned explicitly in the article, it does refer to “emergency expenditure” which should be interpreted as security costs given the ongoing Mau Mau uprising.

The article presents the views of the main racial groups in the Kenyan legislature on the budget. As the author of the article is based in Nairobi, and quotes extensively, it appears to be a first-hand account or if not it is at least likely to be based on first-hand sources. Although The Times newspaper of the 1950s was identified with the British establishment, the article does not appear to favour the arguments of any one group, though it does allot slightly more space to the European view. African members of the legislature are described as ‘unofficial’: although this is not elaborated on in the article, it indicates that they were not full members. Their exclusion from power in Kenya is likely to have shielded the colonial government from pressure to expand educational provision for Africans.

Although an examination of the Times article reveals the limitations of investment in Human Capital in colonial Kenya, this must be set in the context of a considerable increase in schooling in Africa during the colonial period. As discussed above, this was not primarily through official (state) investment, but indirectly, through the role colonial rule played in facilitating Christian missions. The impact of missionary education is demonstrated by Nunn’s analysis of education levels amongst African ethnic groups in 2005. He finds that average years of schooling is higher for ethnic groups who were near to Christian missions during colonial times[4]. This indicates that missions were the main providers of education – and that their effect has persisted until today (perhaps through intergenerational transfer of knowledge or values).

Micro-level evidence of colonial-era Human Capital improvements in Kampala complements Nunn’s macro-analysis. Literacy rates in the Ugandan capital were virtually zero in the mid-19th century but under the influence of intense missionary activity in the late 19th century rose steadily, reaching 100% for men by 1910 (it took another 30 years for female literacy to reach 100%, as education initially favoured men)[5]. There were similar improvements in numeracy, and a subsequent rise in the share of the population engaging in non-manual work. During this period, formal education in Kampala was almost exclusively provided by missionaries.

The provision of schooling, and improvements in literacy, show that colonial rule in Africa had a large impact on Human Capital, but whether this is a ‘positive’ effect is subject to interpretation. The main emphasis of teaching at missionary schools was Christian education, and literacy in European languages. The education provided was Eurocentric, promoting the virtue of European colonial rule while diminishing or ignoring the importance of indigenous beliefs, customs and skills. Missionary schooling made Africans more qualified for jobs that were useful to the colonial administration: the Kampala case study notes that the colonial civil service was a beneficiary of the new, educated African workforce. This self-serving motivation for providing education is evident in Mr Vasey’s argument quoted above, whereby providing more schools for natives in Kenyans is considered useful in making them receptive to ‘our ideas’ and therefore more accepting of British rule.

Frankema’s critique of colonial Human Capital achievements highlights the importance of African agency in determining the spread of missionary schools. He points out that most missionary education was carried out by Africans, not Europeans, and the location of a new school was guided by local demand (or at least, toleration). Even with the advent of state schools in the Welfare Colonialism era, local people might have to pay for the school themselves. In Nigeria, towns would request a school from the Native Authority, and then raise subscriptions to pay for the construction. Villages would club together to build a ‘bush school’ and hire a teacher to staff it[6]. This context throws light on the attitude of European members of the legislature (reported in the Times article) that “if any groups insisted on a higher standard of social services meanwhile, they should pay for them direct”: it is a well-precedented policy prescription, not a retort.

Missionaries and colonial governments did not open schools in areas that were resistant to Western education, such as traditionally Muslim areas of West Africa, which already operated Islamic schools or teachers. This gave rise to an extremely uneven provision of schooling (and therefore, average level of Human Capital) between African colonies: in 1950 Lesotho had a primary enrolment rate of 60% whereas Gambia’s was 5%[7]. The legacy of colonial-era resistance is still felt today in Northern Nigeria, which lags behind the South in terms of education and development, and gave rise to the Boko Haram group (whose name literally means ‘Western education is forbidden).

It would be a mistake to trivialise the improvement in Human Capital under colonial rule: inconsistent and Eurocentric as it was, it did provide many Africans with greater economic opportunities and improved their ability to communicate and exchange ideas with others across and outside of the continent (which, ironically, facilitated the nationalist campaigns for independence). From a very low base in the late 19th century, the colonial period saw primary school enrolment increase to 24.2% for the average British territory, and 9.4% for the average French one[8]: these are substantial increases. But to put it into perspective, the next 60 years saw gross enrolment in sub-Saharan Africa reach 100%[9], despite the fact that average incomes rose only modestly in this period.

The Times article provides a useful insight into how colonial attitudes and policies led to a significant, but variegated, improvement in Human Capital in Africa. Mass education for Africans was not a priority for the metropolitan or territorial governments: security and budgetary concerns took precedence. However, there was interest from progressive colonial politicians and pressure from African people, which translated into schooling provision where conditions were favourable.


  • Frankema, Ewout H. P, “The origins of formal education in sub-Saharan Africa: was British rule more benign?”, European Review of Economic History, Vol. 16, № 4, (2012), pp.335-355
  • Gardner, Leigh A., Taxing Colonial Africa: The Political Economy of British Imperialism (2012)
  • Meier zu Selhausen, Felix and Jacob Weisdorf, “A colonial legacy of African gender inequality? Evidence from Christian Kampala, 1895-2011”, CEPR discussion paper (2015)
  • Nunn, Nathan, “Gender and Missionary Influence in Colonial Africa” in Akyeampong et al (eds), Africa’s Development in Historical Perspective (2014)
  • Obikili, Nonso, “Social Capital and Human Capital in the Colonies: A study of cocoa farmers in Western Nigeria”, Economic History of Developing Regions, vol. 30, №1 (2015)

[1] E. Frankema, “The origins of formal education in sub-Saharan Africa: was British rule more benign?” (2012)

[2] Ibid.

[3] L. Gardner, Taxing Colonial Africa (2012)

[4] N. Nunn, “Gender and Missionary Influence in Colonial Africa” (2014)

[5] F. Meier zu Selhausen, and J. Weisdorf, “A colonial legacy of African gender inequality? Evidence from Christian Kampala, 1895-2011” (2015)

[6] See Obikili, “Social Capital and Human Capital in the Colonies”, p. 4

[7] Frankema, op. cit.

[8] Frankema, op. cit., p. 337

[9] World Bank, indicator SE.PRM.ENRR [school enrolment, primary (% gross) for 2013

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