Colonial Origins and Fertility: Can the Market Overcome History?
Can market incentives overcome the long-term impact of historical institutions? We address this question by focusing on the role of colonial reproductive policies in shaping fertility behavior in Africa. Exploiting the arbitrary division of ancestral ethnic homelands and the resulting discontinuity in institutions across the British-French colonial borders, we find that women in former British areas are more likely to delay sexual debut and marriage, and have fewer children. However, these effects disappear in areas with high market access, where the opportunity cost of childbearing appears to be high irrespective of colonizer identity. This heterogeneous impact of colonial origins is robust across different measures of access to international and domestic markets. Examining causal mechanisms, we collect archival data on colonial reproductive laws and policies to conduct an event-study analysis. We find that the effect of colonial origins on fertility is entirely driven by differences in the timing of colonial population policies and their lasting impact on the use of modern methods of birth control. We find little evidence that the fertility effect of British colonization operates through education or income. While British colonization is linked to higher female education, this occurs mainly in areas with higher market access while the fertility effects do not. Again, while income levels differ, the fertility gap between British and French colonies opened prior to 1980, whereas the income gap only opened after 1990. Our analysis highlights the heterogeneous nature of the colonial origins of comparative fertility behavior, and implies that economic incentives may overcome historical determinism.