Abstract: We empirically assess the possibility, stressed by African scholars, that stronger precolonial political institutions allowed colonial and postcolonial African governments to better implement modernization programs in rural areas. Using anthropological data, we document a strong positive association between the provision of public goods such as education, health, and infrastructure in African countries and the centralization of their ethnic groups’ precolonial institutions. We develop an empirical test to distinguish among alternative explanations for this finding. The evidence supports the view that precolonial centralization improved public goods provision by increasing the accountability of local chiefs. Our results stress the importance for developing countries to create mechanisms to monitor local administrators of public projects. These mechanisms should be consistent with these countries’ preexisting and informal arrangements.