Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How and Why History Matters for Development Policy

Mary recently wrote a great post on why legal historians, particularly those on the job market, need to be prepared to talk about the "cash-out value" of their scholarship. For those struggling to think through that question, a recent policy research working paper by Michael Woolcock (World Bank - Development Research Group), Simon Szreter (University of Cambridge), and Vijayendra Rao (World Bank - Development Research Group) may be of interest. It is titled "How and Why Does History Matter for Development Policy?"

Here's the abstract:
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.
Part IV identifies ways in which history matters for the authors' policy area. Here's the first paragraph of that section:
There are broadly three ways in which history matters for development policy. The first is through its insistence on the methodological principles of respect for context, process and difference when addressing the study of societies and policy efforts to bring about change in them. History views change as a complex causal process requiring a diversity of forms of knowledge, and a corresponding variety of methods for acquiring and interpreting that knowledge. Second, history is a resource of critical and reflective self-awareness about the nature of the discipline of development itself, its current preoccupations, why those preoccupations (and not others) have come to take their present form, and how they differ from past motives and aims, along with the crucial issue of how particular sources and forms of evidence are rendered salient. Third, history brings a particular kind of perspective to development problems; it is a vantage point for framing and viewing the nature of development which is relatively long-term and comparative.
[footnotes omitted]