Is committing to a free trade policy enough? Evidence from colonial Africa

by Federico Tadei (Department of Economic History, University of Barcelona)


French map of Africa from 1898, showing colonial claims. Originally published as “Carte Generale de l’Afrique’. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Brexit negotiations have led to intense debate on the type of trade agreements that should be put in place between the UK and the European Union. According to Policy Exchange’s February 2018 report, the UK should unilaterally commit to free trade. The assumption underlying this argument is that the removal of tariffs has the potential to reduce consumer prices due to greater competition and lower protection of domestic industries, which would promote innovation and increase productivity.

But the removal of tariffs and protectionist policies might not be sufficient to implement free trade fully. My research on trade from colonial Africa suggests that a legal commitment to free trade is not nearly enough.

Specifically, it appears that during the colonial period the British formally relied on free trade encouraging competition between trading firms, while the French made use of their political power to establish trade monopsonies and acquire African goods at prices lower than in the world markets.

Yet the situation on the ground might have been quite different than what formal policies envisaged. Did the British colonies actually enjoy free trade? Did producers in Africa who lived under British rule receive higher prices than those living under the French?

To answer these questions, I measure the degree of competitiveness of trade under the two colonial powers by computing profit margins for trading companies that bought goods from the African coast and resold them in Europe.

To do so, I use data on African export prices and European import prices for a variety of agricultural commodities exported from British and French colonies between 1898 and 1939 and estimated trade costs from Africa to Europe. The rationale behind this methodology is simple: if the colonisers relied on free trade, profit margins of trading companies should be close to zero.

Tadei Figures

On average, profit margins in the British colonies were lower than in the French colonies, suggesting a higher reliance on free trade in the British Empire (see Figure 1). But if we compare the two colonial powers within one same region (West or East Africa) (Figures 2 and 3), it appears that the actual extent of free trade depended more on the conditions in the colonies than on formal policies of the colonial power.

Profit margins were statistically indistinguishable from zero in British East Africa, suggesting free trade, but they were large (10-15%) in West African colonies under both the French and the British, suggesting the presence of monopsony power.

These results suggest that, in spite of formal policies, other factors were at play in determining the actual implementation of free trade in Africa. In the Western colonies, the longer history of trade and higher level of commercialisation reduced the operational costs of trading companies. At the same time, most of agricultural production was based on small African farmers, with little political power and ability to oppose de facto trade monopsonies.

Conversely, in East Africa, production was often controlled by European settlers who had a much larger political influence over the metropolitan government, increasing the cost of establishing trade monopsonies and allowing better implementation of colonial free trade policy.

Overall, despite formal policies, the ability of trading firms in West Africa to eliminate competition was costly in terms of economic growth. African producers received lower prices than they would have in a competitive market and consumers paid more for imported goods. Formal commitment to free trade policies might not be sufficient to reap the full benefits of free trade.

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