Centuries-old Histories: Explaining Poverty in the Developing World

Historical roots behind current economies help create tomorrow’s public policy

According to recent statistics released by the United Nations, seventy-five percent of the world’s poorest countries are located in Africa, with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s second largest country, also being ranked the poorest in the world with an average per capita Gross Domestic Product of $394.25 in 2013. What has caused such countries to experience such poverty while others experience significant wealth and prosperity? Dr. Nathan Nunn, Professor of Economics at Harvard University, is interested in finding the answer. By examining the historical and evolutionary roots behind the current economic, cultural, and social differences between societies across the world, he and his team conduct research that seeks to better understand the origins of current underdevelopment. In particular, Dr. Nunn’s research focuses on particular channels and mechanisms, such as the evolution of cultural practices, social norms, and political institutions. His research has helped to shape policies that are improving living standards of people around the world. Additionally, it has provided insight into the cultural and institutional details of societies, and their origins, which in turn, enables policy-makers to design policies that take into account the specifics of a country’s environment.

Interdisciplinary in nature, Dr. Nunn’s research draws from and contributes to a wide range of fields, including social psychology, economics, history, political science, and anthropology. He and his team collect data by conducting fieldwork, many times in remote areas of the world, in order to collect data that otherwise would not be available. While abroad, he and his team live simply and also try to contribute to the health, happiness, and prosperity of those that they are studying and working with. As part of their research, participants are provided access to important resources that they otherwise would not have access to, namely healthcare and education. In this way, Dr. Nunn’s commitment to understanding the roots of global disparities also contributes directly to alleviating global poverty. Through his research, Dr. Nunn is able to not only contribute to a better understanding of why the world is the way it is, but to also begin to question what this means for policy. He explains the surreal moment when he realized as a research professor he could “get paid to figure these things out,” and it is clear that his passion for research and the communities he serves will continue to propel him forward towards positive change.

Current research includes:

  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo: The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. Dr. Nunn and his team spend much of their time investigating why this is true. Participating in fieldwork in rural parts of the Congo, he and his team aim to uncover data that otherwise would go unnoticed. Additionally, Dr. Nunn notes that he and his team are continually asking “what can we do to help the people we are working with?” Therefore, Dr. Nunn hopes to collect data that will aid in positive growth for the Congo, while understanding the reasons that led to their current economic situation.

  • Consequences of Historical State Formation: The historical state of the Kuba evolved about 500 years ago and was defined by a network of rivers. Dr. Nunn and his team have looked at descendants of people that were in the state and outside of its borders to analyze if psychologically or culturally there are any differences between the two groups. This project is a part of a wider question in Dr. Nunn’s research that asks how institutions and culture co-evolve and matter for patterns of development today.

  • The Psychological Impacts of Foreign Aid: While in the developing world, it is an ordinary occurrence to see SUVs with aid workers that are attempting to help countries in need. In fact, foreign aid and success are often viewed synonymously. Many believe that foreign aid also begets a culture of dependency or a culture of corruption. Others feel that foreign aid provides individuals hope and optimism for a better future, thus incentivizing hard work and industriousness. Although we are beginning to understand some of the economic impacts of foreign aid, we have virtually no evidence on the psychological or cultural impacts of aid. Dr. Nunn’s research seeks to use behavioral experiments to provide some of the first evidence of the impacts of foreign aid.

  • Culture and Policy: The heart of Dr. Nunn’s research aims to use a richer understanding of the evolution of societies until today to inform future policy decisions. For instance, a recent project investigated the incentive for sending female children to school in the developing world. Heavily funded, significant amount of foreign aid has been spent to increase the availability of education for girls. Dr. Nunn examined the impact of two such aid projects (one in Zambia and the other in Indonesia) on female schooling, and distingusihed between two cultural groups: one that practiced a tradition in which the groom’s families paid a large bride price to the bride’s parents, and another where a significant bride price was not paid at marriage. In cultures where a bride price was not present, the educational investments had zero impact on girls education. However, in cultures that have a tradition of bride price payments, the investments hard large impact. The explanation for this difference lies in the fact that the bride price payments received by the parents at marriage increased significantly with the education level of the bride. Thus, parents from traditional bride price cultures were quick to take advantage of the increased schooling opportunities whereas parent from the other cultures were not. This finding provide a important lessons for education policies moving forward.


As a young adult, Dr. Nathan Nunn was struck by the disparities that exist between people around the world. He explains that as he began to recognize the differences in wealth and well-being, it “became hard to stop thinking about it.” As a graduate student, he began to study countries within Africa more specifically because of the exceptional poverty experienced by many of the people residing there. As he began to try to make sense of the factors that kept these countries in poverty, he learned that Africa’s unique history was a major contributor to its present economic state.

For instance, approximately four to five hundred years, the slave trades in Africa took people from the continent in large quantities amounting to at least 20 million people being taken from their home communities, forced into slavery, and shipped from the continent. Combing through historical records to reconstruct estimates of the number of slaves taken from the different regions of Africa, Dr. Nunn was able to test and quantify the impact that the slave trades had on Africa’s current underdevelopment.

Dr. Nunn’s ongoing and future work seeks to extend this line of analysis by asking what this all means for policy moving forward. How does understanding the historical roots of relative development today help us construct more effective policies that are better tailored to the economic realities of the society we are trying to help. In his free time, aside from research, Dr. Nunn enjoys playing basketball and surfing.

Website: http://scholar.harvard.edu/nunn


Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, 2009