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Plagues, Rebellions, and Wars: The Unexpected Development Benefits of Historical Shocks

April 15, 2019

Washington, DC and Online


  • Historically, conflicts and large shocks have played a key role in long-term development, leaving important institutional legacies that shape modern development outcomes.

    In this talk, World Bank economist Colin Xu will draw on recent studies of the long-term impact of historical conflicts and other large shocks to show how they affect long-term demographic transitions and economic transformations. Examples include the impact of the Black Death on the Malthusian transition in Europe, the emergence of accountability in England, the impact of the Taiping Rebellion on China’s regional development and local state capacity, the divergence of state capacity between China and Japan starting from the mid-19th centuries, and the impact of variations in local accountability around the time of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (i.e., 1949) on Chinese politics and growth in the past half century.

    A key finding that emerges from these examples is that large demographic shocks (such as famines and large wars), coupled with the opportunities created by trade and technological change, often spur important demographic transitions and institutional changes (such as decentralization and the emergence of accountability), which result in long-term benefits for development.

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    L. Colin Xu

    Lead Economist

    Lixin Colin Xu is a Lead Economist in the Development Research Group of the World Bank. After studying at Peking University and the University of Chicago, he joined the Research Group of the World Bank in 1996. His current research has focused on applied microeconomic topics such as development, industrial organization, corporate governance, governance and institutions, political economy, cultural change, and the Chinese economy in transition.


    Aaditya Mattoo

    Acting Director of Research

    Aaditya Mattoo is Research Manager, Trade and Integration, at the World Bank. He specializes in trade policy analysis and international trade agreements. Prior to joining the Bank in 1999, Mr. Mattoo was Economic Counsellor at the World Trade Organization. Between 1988 and 1991, he taught economics at the University of Sussex and Churchill College, Cambridge University. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Cambridge, and an M.Phil in Economics from the University of Oxford. He has published widely in academic and other journals on trade, trade in services, development and the WTO and his work has been cited extensively, including in the Economist, Financial Times, New York Times, and Time Magazine.


    Laura Bailey

    Lead Social Development Specialist

    Laura E. Bailey is Lead Social Development Specialist of the World Bank’s Social, Urban, Rural, and Resilience (SURR) Global Practice. Prior to her current assignment, Ms. Bailey was the Country Manager for Armenia from September 2014 to Spetember 2017. She provided leadership on the overall policy reform agenda for the country, overseen the quality and delivery of the World Bank work program, and maintained relationships with the national authorities and with all key stakeholders in the country.

  • The Policy Research Talks showcase the latest findings of the research department and their implications for World Bank operations. The monthly event facilitates a dialogue between researchers and operational staff so that we can challenge and contribute to the World Bank's intellectual climate and re-examine conventional wisdom in current development theories and practices. Read More »


  • Time: 12:30 - 2:00PM ET
  • Location: MC 13-121