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Financing the African Colonial State: Fiscal Capacity Building and Forced Labor

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The renewed scholarly interest in the connections between taxation, state building efforts, and long-term economic development has revitalized the study of historical tax systems. How did today’s states initially acquire ‘fiscal capacity’, and why was this process more successful in some places than in others? Since African tax systems are among the weakest in the world today, scholars have shown increased interest in the regions’ fiscal history. For most African countries, the era of colonial rule is central to these questions, when much of the region’s modern fiscal institutions first took shape. With virtually no local tax systems that could directly be taken over on the one hand, and strict imperial doctrines of ‘fiscal self-sufficiency’ on the other, colonial governments faced severe barriers to develop fiscal capacity. How did colonial states solve the ‘revenue problem’? In this dissertation I take a broad empirical and conceptual approach to understanding the evolution of African (colonial) tax systems. I argue that colonial fiscal capacity building efforts cannot be understood without integrating the largely overlooked, but critically important place of labor taxes. In-kind labor contributions did not only alleviate budget constraints, but also enabled colonial governments to set a virtuous cycle of producing trade tax revenues in motion. Although the topic of forced labor runs like a red thread through the historiography of colonial Africa, its place and shadow value as a form of taxation has received scant attention. By approaching forced labor from a fiscal perspective, my dissertation both deepens our understanding of historical revenue production strategies and sheds new lights on the role of colonial labor coercion practices.

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  • 01/30/2019
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