How and Why Does History Matter for Development Policy?

Michael Woolcock, Simon Szreter and Vijayendra Rao write this paper exploring how historians/history have basically been ignored in the development process.

They say this idea that history matters for development came to light when people realised institutions matter for development. And as instis depend on historical outcomes hence its importance. However, this is too limited and myopic a view:

The consensus among scholars and policymakers that “institutions matter” for development has led inexorably to a conclusion that “history matters,” since institutions clearly form and evolve over time. Unfortunately, however, the next logical step has not yet been taken, which is to recognize that historians (and not only economic historians) might also have useful and distinctive insights to offer.

This paper endeavors to open and sustain a constructive dialogue between history—understood as both “the past” and “the discipline”—and development policy by (a) clarifying what the craft of historical scholarship entails, especially as it pertains to understanding causal mechanisms, contexts, and complex processes of institutional change; (b) providing examples of historical research that support, qualify, or challenge the most influential research (by economists and economic historians) in contemporary development policy; and (c) offering some general principles and specific implications that historians, on the basis of the distinctive content and method of their research, bring to development policy debates.

The authors acknowledge the role played by economists to highlight history’s role in development but are not really happy with the centre stage taken by them.

In arguing that institutions and history matter, however, the development policy community has largely failed to take the third (seemingly logical) step, which is to recognize that historians—and the discipline they represent—might matter. Selected economic historians working within the confines of economics departments (e.g., Stan Engerman, Kenneth Sokoloff, Peter Lindert, Ronald Findlay, Kevin O’Rourke, Jeffrey Williamson) have certainly been influential in these discussions3, as have some innovative economists, most notably Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, James Robinson (for present purposes we shall call them historical economists), who have turned their theories, methods and quest for data to the past. Certain authors (e.g., Diamond 1997, de Soto 2000) of influential ‘big picture’ development narratives have also invoked a reading of the past to make their case.4

However, a great many professional historians of particular countries, regions, periods or thematic issues have been conspicuous by their absence from these deliberations, especially in policy circles. While historians hardly speak with a single voice or from a unified perspective, we believe it is unfortunate that most historians and their discipline are absent from development policy debates, despite everyone putatively agreeing that ‘history matters’: at best it leads to lost opportunities to enrich the quality of scholarship and policy responses; at worst it results in all manner of instances in which partisans erroneously or selectively invoke ‘history’ in support of their cause (see MacMillan 2009). Needless to say, it is almost impossible to imagine the reverse situation, namely a prominent policy issue in which there was a consensus that economics matters but that economists were somehow not consulted

The paper looks at this failure of development economists and policymakers to take adequate account of scholarly
research by historians. The authors add historians alone have not suffered from this. Geographers have been excluded from economic geography. WDR 2009 was on economic geography but there was not a single author/advisor who was a geographer.

The authors look at reasons why historians may not be considered useful for economic development. Or they could themselves distance from it:

We acknowledge from the outset that many reasonable people contend that it is naïve, foolish or even positively dangerous to expect history (either ‘the past’ or ‘the discipline’) to speak to contemporary policy problems, especially those pertaining to highly controversial concerns such as ‘development’. The basis for such a stance includes beliefs that

  • (a) ‘history’does not and cannot provide such ‘lessons’ (i.e., it contains no teleological or Hegelian imperative),
  • (b) that each time and place is unique (i.e., there are inherently qualitative differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’, and/or ‘here’ and ‘there’9),
  • (c) that only those acting with great hubris imagine that ‘the future’ can be effectively guided by the deployment of human reason, or
  • (d) that any such actions inevitably unleash—no matter how seemingly noble the initial intention or diligent the implementation—potentially harmful and irreversible unintended consequences. In this regard, historians are also conscious that
  • (e) many of the twentieth (and previous) century’s most infamous tyrants (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot) justified their actions on the basis that they were acting in accordance with, or to actively fulfill, a destiny or mandate borne of historical necessity.
  • Similarly, (f) historians may distance themselves from policy discussions because of a concern that their hard-won research findings—sobering, nuanced and finely crafted as they are likely to be—are either ‘unactionable’ through prevailing policy instruments or may be used for purposes (whether by dictators or by well-meaning bureaucracies wielding only the crudest of de-contextualized policy tools11) that they find distasteful and/or for which they wish to bear no responsibility.
  • Finally, (g) large international development agencies, formed as they were during the height of modernization theory’s influence, contain an inherent imperative to embrace, implicitly if not explicitly, presumptions that there is a ‘single’ and/or ‘best’ path to modernity (embodied in the ubiquitous language of “best practices”), a notion most contemporary historians reject.

The authors reject these criticisms and say history matters greatly for development. What also matters is what kind of history is going to be used. Most of the time wrong lessons are taken and there are errors of both commission and omission.

The authors then explain how history can help understand the process of development. There are three significant things history can contribute:

  • historiography—or, by implication, the recognition that there is more than one way to make and substantiate a causal empirical claim, especially as it pertains to time
  • Context Matters
  • Understanding process Concerns – For historians, taking process issues seriously is not a matter of compiling time series or panel data sets (though these may be useful in their own right) to track changes over time, but rather exploring in detail the specific contingencies by which the dynamics of an evolving set of actors, events and institutions come to coalesce (or not) at a particular time and place, and thereby shape future action (indeed, how such actions can shape the salience of actions and events, actual or imagined, in the past). The most consistent ‘lesson’ from historical research on the study of process concerns is not just methodological (i.e., how to do it carefully and defensibly) but substantive—that is, that certain policy intentions usually give rise to a host of different outcomes, some intended and some unintended, and, conversely, that observed outcomes can themselves often be a product of multiple factors

The authors point to two interesting cases from history

  • How registering birth/deaths/marriages led to people having their own identity and estbalishing property rights
  • How measuring literacy rates started with finding how many people can sign their names. This led to efforts to improve literacy levels (a practice corrupted by Indian policymakers where this idea was blindly implemented. People were shown as literate those who could sign. The problem was people did not know how to read the sign)

The summary is:

In matters pertaining to development and national economic growth patterns, ‘path dependency’ has been the concept which has won an enduring acknowledgement among economists and other social scientists signifying that ‘history matters’.  However, ‘path dependency’ can be a profoundly misleading way to understand the role of history. To the extent that the notion of path dependency can be invoked to mean that a set of historical events and institutions in a country’s or region’s past have exerted a deterministic influence upon its subsequent history, then this is a a-historicist viewpoint which no professional historians would wish to endorse. Paradoxically, to invoke path dependency in this manner merely commits the mirror image fallacy of ignoring history entirely, by suggesting that certain selected aspects of the historical past are inevitable destiny.

Historians see history as constitutive of the present, not determinative of it. If for no other, this is for one very important and powerful historiographical reason, namely that historians believe that it is through the study of the past that we continually modify our understanding of it and so shift our relationship with it. That is, after all, the fundamental rationale for the discipline; the past is never finished and complete. While the discipline of history lives as a practice, it is always subject to alteration and revision; in this sense, the ‘path’ itself is re-made anew by each generation of historians. To give one extremely important but simple example of this, we can point to the revolution in our understanding of the nature of the first ever case of modern economic development on a national scale, the transformation of the British economy into the world’s first commercial, industrial and imperial power. 

Very interesting paper. Tons of references (mostly of books though).


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