Essay question – From the perspective of institutional theory, explain the contrasting growth and development experience of China and sub-Saharan Africa since 1980. (3000 words)

The premise of the question is that since China’s reforms following the death of Mao Zedong, China has experienced remarkable growth. This contrasts with the relatively poor growth of much of sub Saharan Africa (SSA). There are many explanations for economic growth and development, but institutional theory is cited by many as a key driver of growth. Therefore, a major reason why some countries grow faster than others is the nature of their institutional frameworks. This essay requires you to explain institutions, and apply the theory to China and SSA in order to explain the extent to which institutions help us understand the different growth and development experience.

Structure of the essay and what to include


  • An introduction setting out what we are doing and why this topic is of interest and important
  • Give evidence with data as to the divergence in growth and development of China and Sub Saharan Africa (SSA)
  • Include context – 1980 was a turning point (reform) – china GDP per capita increased (use other appropriate variables too to make a comparison to sub-Saharan Africa), leads to divergence.
  • Explain this through institutions. There a lot of reasons but institutions are emerging in the literature as a reason why some nations grow faster than others. (identify some literature and give examples)
  • Remain critical and original
  • Outline the structure of the essay

Second Section

  • Extent to which the essay has identified and explained institutional theories of growth and development
  • Set out clearly what we mean by institutions and explain the basis and nuances of institutional theory and the way it relates to explaining growth and development.
  • Why are institutions important in the growth and development
  • Talk about formal and informal institutions
  • Have to use the readings listed below for this section:
  • Acemoglu, D. and Robinson, J., 2010. The role of institutions in growth and development (p. 135). World Bank Publications
  • Hodgson, G.M., 2000. What is the essence of institutional economics?. Journal of economic issues, 34(2), pp.317-329. (Available on google scholar)
  • Rodrik, D., 2004. Institutions and economic performance-getting institutions right. CESifo DICE Report, 2(2), pp.10-15.

  • Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S., Robinson, J.A. (2001). “The colonial origins of comparative development: An empirical investigation”. American Economic Review 91, 1369–1401.
  • Rodrik, D., “Institutions, Integration, and Geography: In Search of the Deep Determinants of economic Growth,” August 2001

  • Hall, R., and C. Jones, (1999), “Why do Some Countries Produce so Much More Output Per Worker than Others?” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 114, No. 1, pp. 83–116.

Third Section

  • Extent to which the essay has applied theory, with evidence, appropriately to the China and Sub Saharan Africa
  • Having explained the theory, we now apply it and draw upon the evidence from the literature
  • Articulate what the literature is arguing in terms of why China grew so rapidly post 1980 and why SSA lagged – in terms of the relative institutional frameworks and how institutions help to explain the differences in growth.
  • Use 2 graphs of the same variable to compare and show the growth in SSA and China

Structure of this section

  • Structure needs to be thematic for this section so by theme.
  • Themes are specific institutions (legal systems, intellectual property rights, corruption, copyrights)
  • Create sub headings and talk about SSA and China under these themes – talk about what happened in the countries
  • As SSA is a large state, within the explanation, use 1 country that has done really well like Botswana, 1 country that has done really poor and 1 country that is in the middle as examples to explain points being made – like why did Botswana manage to reform but not SSA (other countries in the region)
  • This will be the biggest section
  • In this section, connect things to general theory throughout the themes when comparing China and SSA
  • Example : In China, the breakup of communes and household responsibility system, changed incentives as more inclined to produce food. The incentives led to higher incomes and more savings and more investment = C+I+G – harrod domar model of growth – that’s how china got rich – show how these ideas relate to each other
  • WHY HASN’T AFRICA DONE THIS? China had a strong authoritarian state hence why could do it which shows some institutions are more important than others.
  • At the end of each theme, link it back to the question.
  • USE EVIDENCE!!!! Nancy Birdsall for SSA Evidence. Connect evidence to theory.
  • For example: Nancy Birdsall talks about weak institutions (lack of incentives for saving and investments) Savings = Investment, WITHOUT Investment, YOU DON’T GET A BOOST IN Consumption + Investment + Government spending WHICH IS GROWTH.
  • Use most of the readings listed below for this section
  • Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson (2010) WHY IS AFRICA POOR?, Economic History of Developing Regions, 25:1, 21-50, DOI: 10.1080/20780389.2010.505010
  • Do No Harm: Aid, Weak Institutions, and the Missing Middle in Africa – Nancy Birdsall – Draft January 15, 2007 Revised March 19, 2007
  • An African Success Story: Botswana – Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, James A. Robinson, July 11, 2001
  • Sumner, A. and Glennie, J., 2015. Growth, Poverty and Development Assistance: When Does Foreign Aid Work?. Global Policy, 6(3), pp.201-21
  • BOTSWANA: A DEVELOPMENT-ORIENTED GATE-KEEPING STATE – ELLEN HILLBOM – African Affairs, 111/442, 67–89 doi: 10.1093/afraf/adr070 © The Author 2011. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society.
  • Jerven, Morten(2010) ‘AFRICAN GROWTH RECURRING: AN ECONOMIC HISTORY PERSPECTIVE ON AFRICAN GROWTH EPISODES, 1690-2010′, Economic History of Developing Regions, 25: 2, 127 — 154 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/20780389.2010.527685
  • Green, S. (2003) “Reforming China’s economy. A rough guide.” Royal Institute for International Affairs, Cambridge University Press
  • Perkins, D. H. (1988). Reforming China’s economic system. Journal of Economic Literature, 601-645.
  • Hou, J. W. (2011). Economic reform of China: Cause and effects. The Social Science Journal, 48(3), 419-434. File
  • Perkins, D. (1994). Completing China’s move to the market. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 23-46.
  • Qian, Y. (2002). “How Re form Worked in China. “William Davidson Institute Working Paper No. 473. Ann Arbor, MI : William Davidson Institut
  • Chan, K.S., Xu, X. and Gao, Y., 2015. The China growth miracle: The role of the formal and the informal institutions. The World Economy, 38(1), pp.63-90.
  • Tasneem, Naila, Institutional Innovations in China: Can China Serve as an Alternative Development Model? (September 1, 2015). International Conference on Institutions, Reforms, and Economic Development, Peking University, 2015. URL
  • Knight, J.B., 2014. China as a developmental state. The World Economy, 37(10), pp.1335-1347.

Final Section

  • Extent to which the essay has drawn conclusions from the analysis that are coherent and logical.
  • This is the conclusion. On balance, given the evidence, how and to what extent do institutions help in explaining the differences in growth and development between China and SSA
  • This essay focuses on a few things but many more aspects that contributed to the reasons
  • Keep the conclusion balanced and vague – china reform led to remarkable growth of development , institutional nature and incentives, many institutions (property rights) haven’t reformed. SSA haven’t been able to reform institutions due to China’s reform only working in China as only effective with the amount of labour that was provided, reform happened at the correct time.
  • Institutions matter but literature tells us that they have to be context specific.
  • Some reforms were right for china therefore cannot apply this to other country and expect the same outcomes. Knowing what that is, is difficult.
  • Difficult to compare SSA as a region to China as a country.


General tips

  • Write with clarity and precision – don’t waste words with long explanations or detail
  • Draw upon theory – always
  • Collect notes first and then what goes in and what can be left out
  • Don’t overwhelm the reader with data or quotes – use sparingly to support key points
  • Harvard referencing – include a bibliography at the end
  • Key literature is provided – use about 25 sources
  • A good answer will be well written, clear, precise, well structured, refers to theory and answers the question.
  • Remain critical and evaluative.