Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684899dbb8-gbqfq Total loading time: 0.348 Render date: 2022-05-24T09:27:24.187Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }

African Borders as Sources of Natural Experiments Promise and Pitfalls*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 December 2014


Africa’s arbitrary country borders have been seized upon as sources of “natural experiments”: having randomly assigned people to different country treatments, differences in outcomes on either side of the border can then be attributed to the institutions, demographics, or policies put in place in each country. While methodologically attractive, the use of African borders as sources of natural experiments presents several potential pitfalls. We describe these pitfalls—some common to all studies that employ jurisdictional boundaries, some unique to African borders—and offer guidelines for overcoming them. We conclude that African cross-border studies can provide research advantages similar to well-executed comparative case studies, but that they frequently offer weaker inferential leverage than is claimed.

Original Articles
© The European Political Science Association 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



John F. McCauley, Assistant Professor of Government & Politics, Department of Government & Politics, University of Maryland, College Park, 3140 Tydings Hall, College Park MD 20742, USA ( Daniel N. Posner, Professor of International Development, Department of Political Science, University of California, Los Angeles 4289 Bunche Hall, Los Angeles CA 90095, USA ( The authors thank the UCLA Globalization Research Center Africa for financial support; Ibrahima Ouattara, Aimé Bado, Ollo Edmond Da, and Warhanti Da for their excellent research assistance, and Denis Cogneau, Elise Huillery, and the DIAL research team for sharing data. Useful comments were received from Daniel de Kadt, Chad Hazlett, members of the Working Group in African Political Economy, participants at the 2012 Princeton Experimental Research Workshop, and two anonymous reviewers.


Alesina, Alberto, Easterly, William, and Matuszeski, Janina. 2011. ‘Artificial States’. Journal of the European Economic Association 9:246277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Angrist, Joshua D., and Lavy, Victor. 1999. ‘Using Maimonides’ Rule to Estimate the Effect of Class Size on Student Achievement’. Quarterly Journal of Economics 114(2):533575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Asiwaju, A.I. 1976. Western Yorubaland Under European Rule, 1889-1945: A Comparative Analysis of French and British Colonialism. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.Google Scholar
Asiwaju, A.I. ed. 1985. Partitioned Africans: Ethnic Relations Across Africa’s International Boundaries, 1884-1984. London: C. Hurst & Company.Google Scholar
Berger, Daniel. 2009. ‘Taxes, Institutions and Local Governance: Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Colonial Nigeria’. Unpublished paper. New York: New York University.Google Scholar
Bloom, Howard S. 2005. ‘Randomizing Groups to Evaluate Place-Based Programs’. In Howard S. Bloom (ed.), Learning More from Social Experiments: Evolving Analytical Approaches. 115572. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
Brownlie, Ian. 1979. African Boundaries: A Legal and Diplomatic Encyclopedia. London: C. Hurst and Company.Google Scholar
Bubb, Ryan. 2013. ‘The Evolution of Property Rights: State Law or Informal Norms?Journal of Law and Economics 56(3):555594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Card, David and Krueger, Alan B.. 1994. ‘Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania’. American Economic Review 84(4):772793.Google Scholar
Coast, Ernestina. 2002. ‘Maasai Socioeconomic Conditions: A Cross-Border Comparison’. Human Ecology 30(1):79105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cogneau, Denis, and Moradi, Alexander Forthcoming Borders that Divide: Education and Religion in Ghana and Togo Since Colonial Times’. Journal of Economic History 74:694729.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cogneau, Denis, Mesplé-Somps, Sandrine, and Spielvogel, Giles Forthcoming Development at the Border: Policies and National Integration in Côte d’Ivoire and its Neighbors’. World Bank Economic Review.Google Scholar
Druckman, James N., Green, Donald P., Kuklinski, James H., and Lupia, Arthur. 2011. ‘Experimentation in Political Science’. In James N. Druckman et al. (eds), Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Political Science. 311. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dunning, Thad. 2008. ‘Improving Causal Inference: Strengths and Limitations of Natural Experiments’. Political Research Quarterly 61:282293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dunning, Thad. 2012. Natural Experiments in the Social Sciences: A Design-Based Approach. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Elton, Catherine. 2005. ‘The Jivaro People Between Peru and Equador’. In Paul Ganster and David Lorey (eds), Borders and Border Politics in a Globalizing World. 107115. Lanham, MD: SR Books.Google Scholar
Englebert, Pierre, Tarango, Stacy, and Carter, Matthew. 2002. ‘Dismemberment and Suffocation: A Contribution to the Debate on African Boundaries’. Comparative Political Studies 35:10931118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Firmin-Sellers, Kathryn. 2000. ‘Institutions, Contexts, and Outcomes: Explaining French and British Rule in West Africa’. Comparative Politics 32(3):253272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gerber, Alan S., and Green, Donald P.. 2012. Field Experiments: Design, Analysis and Interpretation. New York, NY: Norton.Google Scholar
Gerber, Alan S., Gimpel, James G., Green, Donald P., Shaw, Daron R.. 2011. ‘How Large and Long-lasting Are the Persuasive Effects of Televised Campaign Ads? Results from a Randomized Field Experiment’. American Political Science Review 105:135150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Green, Elliott. 2012. ‘On the Size and Shape of African States’. International Studies Quarterly 56(2):229244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hargreaves, J.D. 2005. ‘West African Boundary Making’. In Paul Ganster and David Lorey (eds), Borders and Border Politics in a Globalizing World. 97105. Lanham, MD: SR Books.Google Scholar
Huillery, Elise. 2006. ‘Colonization, Institutions and Development in the Former French West Africa’. Unpublished paper, Paris, France: DIAL-IRD.Google Scholar
Huillery, Elise. 2009. ‘History Matters: The Long-Term Impact of Colonial Public Investments in French West Africa’. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 1(2):176215.Google Scholar
Jones, Kelly M., Pattanayak, Subhrendu, and Sills, Erin. 2006. ‘Democracy and Dictatorship: Comparing Household Innovation Across the Border of Benin and Togo’. Unpublished paper. Durham, NC: RTI and NCSU.Google Scholar
Krasno, Jonathan S. and Green, Donald P.. 2008. ‘Do Televised Presidential Ads Increase Voter Turnout? Evidence from a Natural Experiment’. The Journal of Politics 70:245261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Keele, Luke, and Titiunik, Rocio. 2014a. Natural Experiments Based on Geography’. Political Science Research and Methods.Google Scholar
Keele, Luke, and Titiunik, Rocio. 2014b. Geographic Boundaries as Regression Discontinuities’. Political Analysis, doi:10.1093/pan/mpu014: 1-29.Google Scholar
Laitin, David D. 1986. Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change Among the Yoruba. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Lee, Alexander, and Schultz, Kenneth. 2012. ‘Comparing British and French Colonial Legacies: A Discontinuity Analysis of Cameroon’. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 7:146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
MacLean, Lauren M. 2010. Informal Institutions and Citizenship in Rural Africa: Risk and Reciprocity in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McCauley, John F., and Posner, Daniel N.. 2014. ‘The Political Sources of Religious Identification: A Study on the Burkina Faso-Côte d’Ivoire Border’. Unpublished paper. Los Angeles: University of California.Google Scholar
Mendoza, Cristobal. 2000. ‘African Employment in Iberian Construction: A Cross-Border Analysis’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 26(4):609634.Google Scholar
Merolla, Jennifer, and Zechmeister, Elizabeth. 2013. ‘Evaluating Political Leaders in Times of Terror and Economic Threat: The Conditioning Influence of Politician Partisanship’. Journal of Politics 75(3):599612.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Michalopoulos, andPapaioannou, . 2011. The Long-Run Effects of the Scramble for Africa. NBER Working Paper No. 17620. National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
Michalopoulos, Stelios, and Papaioannou, Elias. 2014. ‘National Institutions and Subnational Development in Africa’. Quarterly Journal of Economics 129(1):151213.Google Scholar
Miguel, Edward. 2004. ‘Tribe or Nation? Nation Building and Public Goods in Kenya Versus Tanzania’. World Politics 56:327362.Google Scholar
Miles, William F.S. 1994. Hausaland Divided: Colonialism and Independence in Nigeria and Niger. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Miles, William F.S. 2005. ‘Development, not Division: Local Versus External Perceptions of the Niger-Nigeria Border’. The Journal of Modern African Studies 43:297320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Miles, William F.S., and Rochefort, David. 1991. ‘Nationalism Versus Ethnic Identity in Sub Saharan Africa’. American Political Science Review 85(2):393403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Passi, Anissi. 2005. ‘Boundaries as Social Practice and Discourse: The Finnish-Russian Border’. In Paul Ganster and David Lorey (eds), Borders and Border Politics in a Globalizing World. 117136. Lanham, MD: SR Books.Google Scholar
Posner, Daniel N. 2004. ‘The Political Salience of Cultural Difference: Why Chewas and Tumbukas are Allies in Zambia and Adversaries in Malawi’. American Political Science Review 98(3):529545.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ralston, Laura. 2012. ‘Less Guns, More Violence: Evidence from Disarmament in Uganda’. Unpublished paper. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Google Scholar
Robinson, Amanda. 2014. ‘Nationalism and Interethnic Trust: Evidence from an African Border Region’. Unpublished paper. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University.Google Scholar
Sahlins, Peter. 1989. Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Sekhon, Jasjeet S., and Titiunik, Rocio. 2012. ‘When Natural Experiments are Neither Natural Nor Experiments’. American Political Science Review 106(1):3557.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Slater, Dan, and Ziblatt, Daniel. 2013. ‘The Enduring Indispensability of the Controlled Comparison’. Comparative Political Studies 46(10):13011327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Welch, Claude E. 1966. Dream of Unity: Pan-Africanism and Political Unification in West Africa. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

African Borders as Sources of Natural Experiments Promise and Pitfalls*
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

African Borders as Sources of Natural Experiments Promise and Pitfalls*
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

African Borders as Sources of Natural Experiments Promise and Pitfalls*
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *