Assembling the pieces: a puzzle of slave dealing, mistrust and corruption

Our preferences and cognition, our entire behavior is characterized by the social and cultural structures we have been exposed to. The mental models constructed on the basis of these experiences work like lenses through which we perceive the world. It seems only intuitive that societies with shared mental models, which have been influenced by historical experience, react and engage to and with the world in ways that in turn have an influence on its development. In light of this, an important question could be whether poor economic performance is somewhat related to the mental models of a group.

The link between trust and economic development, with the former acting as an important factor both on the macro-level of economic growth (see Zak & Knack, 2001) as well as on the micro-level in forms of motivation and work performance (see Falk & Kosfeld, 2006), is an understandably positive one. While subject to considerable discussion, the alleged connection between low levels of trust and slave trading is therefore an interesting starting point for an behavioral development’s explanatory approach to Africa’s dragging development. Leaving aside the present unequal relations in a globalized world, the slave trade constituted a major break in the history of many African countries and had long-lasting effects on the affected societies. Nunn and Wantchekon (2011) suspected an impact on trust in Africa and indeed found a negative relationship between an ethnic group’s current level of trust in others and the extent to which it had been affected by the slave trade. As a possible explanation for this, Nunn and Wantchekon identified slave trade as having potentially added to a deterioration of domestic institutions, which would make individuals today less likely to behave in trusting ways. Another mechanism that might explain the lower levels of trust is that the slave trade had an impact on the cultural norms of the groups most severely affected by it, rendering individuals today intrinsically less trusting. Having tried to distinguish and unravel the two explanatory approaches, they state that while both channels seem to have been at play in tarnishing trust, the cultural take is potentially twice as potent as the effects through formal institutions. Nunn and Wantchekon offer the conclusion, that the slave trade impaired trust because an ever-present uncertainty and a need to protect oneself drove people to kidnap others – even friends or members of the family – and to collaborate with the slave traders. This lacking trust in others might have been perpetuated through cultural norms up to the present day, which in turn hinders the establishment of better institutions and therefore ultimately economic development.

This is made even more complicated, when we also consider the vicious cycle between mistrust and corruption: public mistrust in the government is of course fostered by negative experiences, while on the other hand this prevailing lack of faith in the institutions actually favors corruption in turn. The two phenomena might be feeding each other, which is particularly worrying in questions of for example healthcare. During the Ebola virus outbreak of 2014, many people in West African countries actually believed in an government-led conspiracy instigated to cause the own population harm. This wide-spread notion, amongst other things, even contributed to the closing of clinics in Liberia. So while the legacy of the slave trade in Africa might be mistrust, corruption acts as a contemporary seed of doubt today and thereby further obstructs economic development.


Adekoya, R. (2014). The awful legacy of Africa’s top-level corruption is a culture of mistrust. URL –

Cho, W., Kirwin, M. F. (2007). ‘A Vicious Circle of Corruption and Mistrust in Institutions in sub-Saharan Africa: A Micro-Level Analysis’. Working Paper, no. 71, Afrobarometer, Cape Town.

Demeritt, A., Hoff, K. (2017). The Making of Behavioral Development Economics. URL –

Nunn, N., Wantchekon, L. (2011). The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa. American Economic Review 101, p. 3221-3252.

Snyder, D., Flynn, D. (2014). West African healthcare systems reel as Ebola toll hits 932. URL –

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