On March 11th, Michiel de Haas, PhD researcher at the Rural and Environmental History group at Wageningen University, will give a seminar on Measuring rural welfare in colonial Uganda.
Scholarship on African historical welfare development is progressing rapidly, uncovering long-term trends in human development, the biological standard of living and urban real wages. So far, however, empirical evidence on the historical development of African rural living standards is lacking, despite Africa’s persistently rural character. This paper contributes to filling this gap. It proposes a method to construct agricultural welfare ratios, based on village and household level rural surveys. These ratios allow for measurement and comparison of real household incomes from subsistence farming and cash cropping activities. This new method is operationalized in the context of a comparative investigation of villages in the Uganda Protectorate, surveyed by Uganda’s agricultural department in the mid-1930s. Colonial Uganda is an informative case study because it harbours a paradox of having both a thriving peasant cash crop economy and low urban real wage levels. Applying this new method of computing rural living standard suggests that urban real wages underestimate welfare levels of the majority of rural population in colonial Uganda. This finding calls for a further investigation and incorporation of rural living standards into the study of African welfare development.