There is a very popular belief that Great Britain became rich and powerful because it “raped” its colonies by taking away mineral resources and using slave labour. However, Spain, France, Portugal, Belgium and other European powers did the same thing but never came anywhere close to what Britain achieved. Compared to other European countries, Britain wielded disproportionate power compared to its tiny size. It became more powerful than the Mogul, Ottoman and Roman empires.

Why was there a huge difference in the economic outcomes between the North and South American colonies? Canada and the USA under the British turned out far better than Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Panama, etc. which were all under other powers. According to British Economic historian Niall Ferguson, the answer lies in the economic and governance institutions that Britain developed which differed from the rest by creating a Bill of Rights and putting private property rights center stage.

The former colonies that have largely kept those institutions (Botswana, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, etc) became prosperous, whereas those that began to abandon them (India, Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, etc) have turned out very poor. As Mo Ibrahim has argued, Africans cannot keep blaming their former colonial masters for their current economic mess fifty years later.

To quote Ferguson, “…institutions, in the broadest sense of the term, determine modern historical outcomes, more than natural forces like the weather, geography or even the incidence of disease.”