Marlous van Waijenburg

Marlous van Waijenburg is a comparative economic historian interested in the historical roots of relative African poverty, and specifically in the economic legacies of colonialism. Her work is methodologically situated at the intersection of global history, development economics, and political economy.

Marlous received both her B.A. and M.A. from Utrecht University, and has been visiting student in the economics department of Washington University in St. Louis under the supervision of Prof. Douglass C. North. Her M.A. thesis, titled Living Standards in British Africa in a Comparative Perspective, 1880-1945. Is Poverty Destiny?, won two prizes and was published as an article (joint with Ewout Frankema) in the Journal of Economic History in 2012. The article version was later awarded the Arthur Cole Prize for "best article in the Journal of Economic History 2012-2013" and received the Wageningen School of Social Sciences Publication Award for "best article in the Social Sciences."

Her dissertation, titled "Financing the African State: Development and Transformations of Fiscal Systems in the Long Twentieth Century," compares state capacity building in Africa through the lens of taxation. Between 2014-2016, she will be a Presidential Fellow at Northwestern University.

Publications and Working Papers

(2015) "Financing the African Colonial State: The Revenue Imperative and Forced Labor," African Economic History Working Paper 20

Abstract: Recent studies on colonial public finance have pointed to the severe constraints to fiscal capacity building Sub-Saharan Africa, and to the inclination of colonial governments to avoid direct taxes when revenue from trade became sufficiently available. Although fiscal revenue was indeed a central pillar of the colonial state formation process, contributions from a widely used but implied source of government ‘income’ – that of forced labor (or ‘labor taxes’) – have so far been left out of the picture. Exploiting data on labor corvée schemes in French Africa between 1913-1937 (the prestations), this is the first paper to provide estimates of how much this in-kind form of revenue may have enhanced colonial budgets. I show that in most places labor taxes constituted the most important component of early colonial state income. My results imply that studies on historical fiscal capacity building efforts need to make a greater effort to estimate and integrate this significant source of state income into their analysis.

(2014) "Metropolitan Blueprints of Colonial Taxation? Comparative Fiscal Development in British and French Africa, 1880-1940." Journal of African History 55(3): 371-400 (with Ewout Frankema)

Abstract: The historical and social science literature is divided about the importance of metropolitan blueprints of colonial rule for the development of colonial states. We exploit historical records of colonial state finances to explore the importance of metropolitan identity on the comparative development of fiscal institutions in British and French Africa. Taxes constituted the financial backbone of the colonial state and were vital to the state building efforts of colonial governments. A quantitative comparative perspective shows that pragmatic responses to varying local conditions can easily be mistaken for specific metropolitan blueprints of colonial governance and that under comparable local circumstances the French and British operated in remarkably similar ways.

(2012) "Structural impediments to African growth? New evidence from real wages in British Africa, 1880-1965." Journal of Economic History 72(4): 895-926 (with Ewout Frankema)


Recent literature on the historical determinants of African poverty has emphasized structural impediments to African growth, such as adverse geographical conditions, weak institutions, or ethnic heterogeneity. But has African poverty been a persistent historical phenomenon? This article checks such assumptions against the historical record. We push African income estimates back in time by presenting urban unskilled real wages for nine British African colonies (1880-1965). We find that African real wages were well above subsistence level and that they rose significantly over time. Moreover, in West Africa and Mauritius real wage levels were considerably higher than those in Asia.