It’s a known phenomenon: systems and structures, if robust, continue to work for as long as they are unchangedby Amal Chatterjee / June 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
Once upon a time, the Romans ruled a vast swathe of Europe, of North Africa, and of what is now called the Middle East. Where they conquered, they built towns and cities, many of which survive to this day.
Some wear their Roman origins conspicuously; others, like London and Paris, do so more discreetly. Between those cities the Romans built roads, infrastructure that made those places—many previously insignificant or non-existent—centres of influence. Researchers in Denmark have found that Roman infrastructure continues to exert a powerful influence on local, national and transnational economies.
Even today, Lyon is still connected to Avignon and north to the Rhine, superseding older Greek colonies and the researchers found there is “more economic activity in places with a greater density of Roman roads.” Not everywhere, though; the influence has faded outside Europe, in North Africa and the Middle East.
We’ll come back to that. First, let’s consider the idea that Roman infrastructure continues to affect the economy in Europe to this day. It’s a known phenomenon: systems and structures, if robust, continue to work for as long as they are unchanged. Norman names do, too: studies show that in modern England they still are indicators of prosperity, over-represented at Oxford and Cambridge. Norman focus on the south of England led to York’s economic decline, a fall in its population, and continued disparity in prosperity between northern and southern counties.
More recent empires have left legacies, too. The British, French and Dutch, for instance, built transport infrastructure—roads, railways, ports—to draw produce, people and wealth to their (often new) cities. Those centres, from Lagos to Mumbai, Hong Kong to Mombasa, Karachi to Kampala, play outsize roles in their respective post-colonial states. Often, they are the economic centres of their new nations.
But all is not well with them. Those nations too often fall to post-colonial diseases of corruption, oppression, dictatorship, to the dismay of some and the barely concealed told-you-so satisfaction of others. But why? Is it because—whisper it—these people are really not capable? Are they just not ready? Will they ever be?
Factors have been identified: unpreparedness, weak institutions, lack of education, even the Roman-style influence of persistent infrastructure. But there’s more.…