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Q&A with King Center Postdoctoral Fellow Marie Christelle Mabeu

Mabeu discusses her research on the relationship between colonial history, gender equity, and reproductive health across Africa.

Marie Christelle Mabeu is a postdoctoral fellow at the King Center and an economist interested in development economics, political economy, reproductive behavior, and gender issues. 

Mabeu's research agenda explores the long-run impact of historical and contemporary institutions on reproductive behavior, early-age human capital accumulation and female empowerment, with a regional focus on sub-Saharan Africa.

Your research covers the interplay between colonial history, gender equity, and reproductive health. What drove you to work at this intersection of research areas?

Marie Christelle Mabeu
Marie Christelle Mabeu

I have always been interested in issues of gender equity. I grew up in a context where women did not enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men. At the same time, I was impressed to see that within my native country of Cameroon, and within Africa in general, this phenomenon varies a great deal across cultures and regions. As a doctoral student, I was very interested in understanding the origins of such variations and what can be done to improve women's conditions in Africa.

I was inspired to look at how colonial history might play a role in explaining gender outcomes noticing how within Cameroon, Anglophone and Francophone men and women behave so differently when it comes to entrepreneurship, political participation, career aspiration, and so on. And one big question that had remained unanswered was the question of why fertility choices seem to differ so much between Francophone and Anglophone women in Africa; Anglophone women have fewer children than their Francophone counterparts. I then settled to investigate this question by looking at the role that colonial population policies might have played in shaping the trajectory of fertility and more broadly reproductive health outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa. I was very fortunate to collaborate with Professor David Canning and Professor Roland Pongou, who are so knowledgeable on questions of fertility and demographic changes.

I should also mention that while I am interested in African history in general, I am also highly interested in how the legacies of history can be addressed through policy design. Major historical shocks such as the slave trade and colonialism and its multiple facets have ongoing impacts on opportunities and outcomes today and continue to affect relationships between people in our communities. Despite the large number of studies documenting the long-term effects of these events, it is surprising that social and economic policies implemented across the continent are rarely designed to comprehensively address these issues. I started to look at the question of whether and how the legacy of history may be overturned by investigating the role of market incentives in mitigating the impact of colonial origins on fertility behavior.   

You recently released a working paper on colonialization’s impact on fertility in Africa, particularly between British and French colonies. Colonial rule did have a notable effect on fertility; however this effect disappears in areas with higher market access. Why is that? Were you surprised by these results?

My primary research agenda aims to understand the role of pre-colonial and colonial institutions in explaining present-day human capital outcomes and economic development in Africa and how their legacies may be overturned. In this working paper with David Canning and Roland Pongou, we address this broad question first by examining the effect of British versus French colonial reproductive laws and policies on fertility, and second by examining how these colonial reproductive policies interact with market access to shape fertility behavior in Africa.

We use the partition of African ethnic groups across countries during colonial times to implement a Spatial Regression Discontinuity Design. This is a design that allows us to compare fertility level across women from the same cultural background who were exposed to different colonial reproductive policies. We find that women residing in former British colonies have fewer children compared to their counterparts in former French colonies. We show that this result is most likely explained by the lasting impact of different colonial reproductive policies on the timing of the introduction of family planning programs in former British and French colonies in Africa. In particular, the colonial French law of 1920 constrained the implementation of birth control policies in former French colonies until the early 1980s and resulted in lower reliance on modern contraception in these countries. By contrast, family planning programs were introduced in former British colonies in the late 1950s.

Interestingly, we also find that this main result masks important heterogeneities by market access. Market access denotes the ability of individuals to sell their products or services to the consumers across local areas, regions, and national borders. By creating new economic opportunities, market access is a proxy for the opportunity cost of childbearing. We construct measures of access to international and domestic markets and show that the fertility gap between Anglophone and Francophone women in Africa disappears in areas with higher market access. Market incentives cause these women to use modern birth control contraceptive methods, which minimizes differences in fertility behavior resulting from colonial population policies. The long-term effect of colonial origins on fertility only persists in areas with low market access.

Personally, I was surprised to see that the fertility gap between Anglophone and Francophone women in Africa in areas with low market access is not explained by differences in level of education or household income. Our analysis suggests that market incentives may overturn the long-term fertility effect of colonial origins.     

You also have a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of the Economy of Cameroon (forthcoming Oxford University Press) examining differences between former French and British Cameroon. Could you talk about what your findings imply about the long-term impacts of colonial institutions on outcomes for citizens?

Since October 2016, my native country of Cameroon has been rocked by a sociolinguistic and political crisis that has become known as the ''Anglophone Problem''. The crisis started with a non-violent march by Anglophone lawyers and teachers to protest the appointment and transfer of monolingual French-speaking judges and teachers into the English-speaking regions (the Southwest and Northwest regions). The peaceful strike was severely repressed by the government and quickly escalated into a violent civil conflict with Anglophone leaders calling for the secession of the two English-speaking regions from the rest of the country. Professor Roland Pongou and I shed light on the root causes of this Anglophone crisis by examining how the colonial history of Cameroon has interacted with post-colonial governance and institutions to shape long-term economic outcomes.

Cameroon has had a complex colonial experience. This Central African territory was under the colonial control of no less than three European powers for 76 years before achieving full independence in 1960 and 1961. Between 1884 and 1916 Cameroon was a German protectorate. The territory was subsequently divided between Great Britain and France following Germany’s defeat during World War I. In 1960, the French territory of Cameroon gained independence from France. After a plebiscite in 1961, the southern portion of the British territory of Cameroon voted to join the independent French Cameroon to form present-day Cameroon while the Northern part of the British territory of Cameroon voted to join Nigeria.

We use the internal British-French border in Cameroon to assess the impacts of the colonial history of Cameroon on human capital and labor participation outcomes. We compare the outcomes of Anglophones and Francophones who live close to the historical British-French border in Cameroon and who share the same ethnicity and ancestral traditions. We found that Anglophones have a higher level of educational attainment in general. Specifically, we find that British rule has a strong positive effect on the completion of primary education but a much smaller, albeit positive, effect on the completion of secondary education. For both outcomes, the effect is larger for women than for men. The higher educational attainment of the Anglophones does not however, translate into better paid employment or greater well-being for children. Indeed, Anglophones are less likely to work in the non-agricultural sector compared to Francophones, and infant mortality is equally high among children born to parents from these two groups.

Using the 1961 reunification, we also analyzed the interplay between colonial origins and postcolonial institutions in determining long-term outcomes. We find that the 1961 reunification of British Southern Cameroon with French Cameroon in 1961 has been detrimental to the Anglophone minority. The advantage enjoyed by Anglophones in terms of educational attainment almost entirely vanished after the reunification.

Finally, we asked the question of whether the outcomes of the Anglophones differ from their hypothetical outcomes, had former British Southern Cameroons instead opted to join Nigeria in the 1961 plebiscite. We answered this question by comparing their outcomes to those of their Nigerian co-ethnic neighbors. Surprisingly, we found that while the Anglophones of Cameroon had levels of education comparable to that of their Nigerian neighbors before the 1961 reunification, they became significantly worse off afterwards. We also found that, compared to their Nigerian neighbors, Anglophone Cameroonians are worse off in terms of non-agricultural employment and infant mortality rates.

The evidence from this paper suggests that the institutions inherited by the Anglophone minority of Cameroon from the British colonial power have likely been modified and even undermined by the centralized state that emerged following the 1961 reunification. The results thus shed light on the sense of political, economic, and socio-cultural marginalization that has gradually built up in this minority group, culminating in the recent political crisis in Cameroon.

Your work has been focused on sub-Saharan Africa with your data coming from all over the region. What are some challenges you have encountered in your research, particularly when conducting surveys in low-income countries? What have been the highlights?

As with many historical projects, especially those focusing on low-income countries, the main challenge has been finding data to reconstitute the history of the country. To give you a specific example, in my project analyzing the impact of colonial population policies on fertility, we needed data on the timing and the type of population policies implemented in former colonial countries throughout the colonial period. Since such data do not exist at a specific place, we had to consult various archives and historical papers to gather information that helped us to document and analyze the history of population policies in colonial Africa.  This was highly time-consuming.

You have been at the King Center as a postdoctoral scholar for almost a year now. What has your experience been like at Stanford and the King Center?

I am very grateful for my time at the King Center. My mentor, who is Professor Pascaline Dupas, has been very supportive. She has been providing fantastic advice on both my research and career, during one-on-one and group meetings. Despite her numerous commitments, she finds time to read my paper drafts and provide insightful comments and suggestions. I am now working on a research project with Pascaline on the impact of colonial forced labor on fertility behavior in Burkina Faso. I am also very thankful for the fact that faculty affiliates including Professors Alessandra Voena, Marcel Fafchamps, Grant Miller, Melanie Morten, and Kate Casey have always been available to discuss ideas on one-on-one meetings, provide valuable comments on my papers, and share useful resources and career advice.

The King Center is a rich learning environment. I have particularly enjoyed the various seminars through which I have had the opportunity to interact with many invited scholars. I am also enjoying my interactions with other Postdoctoral Fellows, and I am thankful for their great feedback on my projects. During this first year, I have also had the opportunity to involve Predoctoral Fellows in my research projects and I am thankful for their helpful research assistance.

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