The European Origins of Economic Development

William Easterly and Ross Levine, Brown, June 2012


A large literature suggests that European settlement outside of Europe shaped institutional, educational, technological, cultural, and economic outcomes. This literature has had a serious gap: no direct measure of colonial European settlement. In this paper, we (1) construct a new database on the European share of the population during the early stages of colonization and (2) examine its impact on the level of economic development today. We find a remarkably strong impact of colonial European settlement on development. According to one illustrative exercise, 47 percent of average global development levels today are attributable to Europeans. One of our most surprising findings is the positive effect of even a small minority European population during the colonial period on per capita income today, contradicting traditional and recent views. There is some evidence for an institutional channel, but our findings are most consistent with human capital playing a central role in the way that colonial European settlement affects development today.

[Editor’s Note: The full study is available here.]

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