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MALARIA SHAPED AFRICA”S DEVELOPMENT

Malaria has played a key role in the development of sub-Saharan Africa, according to research by Matthias Flückiger and Markus Ludwig, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016. Their study notes
that the parts of the continent with high climatic potential for the most harmful type of malaria are much less urbanised and have less economic activity than elsewhere.

The researchers trace this back to the way that European colonisers settled the region, as their lack of immunity meant that they tended to build local economic and political centres in areas with less danger of malaria. The ensuing demand for workers meant that people migrated from the rural, malaria-prone regions, cementing the link between malaria, cities and economic development. And most of today''s major urban areas in
sub-Saharan Africa have emerged from the former European centres.

These results do not imply that the Europeans did not settle in very malarial areas. In cases where the dangers were outweighed by potential benefits – for example, in the form of exploitable minerals – the colonisers certainly settled in regions that imposed a
potentially high cost on their health. The authors conclude:

''It is doubtful whether eradicating malaria will lead to economic convergence among regions that are unequally developed due to the malaria-induced settlement pattern of the Europeans. The local degree of malaria potential is likely to be reflected in regional development differences for a long time.''

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Despite malaria being one of the most severe public health problems worldwide, surprisingly little is known about the impact of malaria on economic development at the aggregate level. In fact, whether an effect even exists is controversially disputed in the economic literature.

This research shows that malaria has – in addition to the health-related burden imposed on the contemporary population – also played an important role in shaping the geographical distribution of urbanisation and economic activity in sub-Saharan Africa. Areas characterised by a high climatic potential for Plasmodium falciparum malaria (the most harmful type of malaria) are significantly less urbanised and exhibit a lower degree of economic activity than other areas.

The researchers trace the origin of this relationship back to the settlement pattern of the European colonisers. The local potential for malaria transmission strongly influenced the initial settlement decisions of the Europeans. Due to their non-immunity, the Europeans avoided areas that were highly conducive to malaria transmission. Typically, they established their local economic and political centres in areas characterised by a relatively benign malaria environment.

In these centres, the colonisers invested in infrastructure and established economic institutions that created local labour markets, that is, the demand for wage labour. These labour markets attracted – and still attract – a large number of migrants from rural regions.

As a consequence, most of today''s major urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa have emerged from the former European centres. The combination of this locational path dependence and the malaria-influenced settlement pattern of the colonisers explains, to
a large extent, today''s negative association between the malaria environment, urbanisation and economic activity.

These results do not imply that the Europeans did not settle in (highly) malarial areas.

Rather, the estimates show that climatically suitable regions imposed a cost on

settlement. In cases where this cost was outweighed by potential benefits – for example, in the form of exploitable minerals – the colonisers certainly settled in regions that imposed a high cost on their health.

Another aspect that is also highlighted by these results is the strong degree of path dependence. Once a centre is established in a certain location, this area is likely to grow faster than other regions. Consequently, it is doubtful whether the eradication of
malaria – while very beneficial to the individual – will lead to the economic convergence among regions that are unequally developed due to the malaria-induced settlement pattern of the Europeans. The local degree of malaria potential is therefore likely to be reflected in regional development differences for a long time.

Malaria Suitability and (Post-)Colonial Urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa – Matthias Flückiger and Markus Ludwig