Several economists have argued that cross-country differences in economic development today have their roots in the colonial era. For example, Engerman and Sokoloff (1997, 2002)—henceforth referred to as ES—argue that different types of economic activities that the colonizers engaged in led to different growth paths. They claim that the link between colonial activities and current-day levels of economic development is as follows. In many areas, colonial society was very unequal, giving political rights only to a few landowners, while repressing most of the population through slavery or forced labor. Consequently, institutions that developed during colonial times were designed to protect the rights of only a few. These institutions persist until today and constrain economic development. To give one example, many Latin American banking systems developed primarily to serve a wealthy elite, restricting access to finance for the rest of the population.
In a paper I recently co-authored with Francisco Gallego, we test empirically whether areas with different types of colonial activities do indeed have different levels of economic development today. We use within-country data for 345 regions in seventeen countries in the Americas to do this. We rely on within-country data because colonial activities varied considerably even within countries (for example, the northeast of Brazil grew sugar, while many states in central and southern Brazil had large cattle ranches). Moreover, in our sample, levels of development vary almost as widely within countries (between regions) as they do between countries.