Bringing History (Back) In

Nathan Nunn recently authored a review [gated] of research that attempts to answer a big, fundamental question in development: How do historical factors shape development outcomes? In other words, if we want to explain the large variation we see in economic conditions today (between regions of the world, countries, etc and within them), how useful is history?

Why is this review (and the literature it summarizes) an important contribution? After all, that history would matter for development seems both obvious and intuitive to a non-expert. However, Nunn notes that until recently, development economics has not taken history seriously.

He writes:

“Development economics, which studies the economic conditions of people in less well-developed countries, has traditionally taken a perspective that is fairly ahistorical. The sources of poverty have been hypothesized to lie in low levels of investment in land, machines, education or health. In the early models of economic development, history plays no real role.”

Nunn observes that with few exceptions, the approach taken by economic historians has also been limiting:

“Connections between disparate time periods were infrequently made, and the dynamics or cultural evolution of societies (particularly over longer time horizons) was not commonly studied.”

Nunn then surveys academic work that examines the impact of events that occurred during the period of European expansion and colonialism on long-term development outcomes. This section is followed by an interesting discussion of how economic conditions may have contributed to the evolution of, cultural norms and behaviors that in turn impact development outcomes (e.g. areas that adopted plow agriculture in pre-industrial times show restrictive attitudes towards women working outside the home and tend to have a “gendered division of labor” today).

After showing that history does in fact matter (in a big way), Nunn offers his own take on how development policy can respond to, and not be constrained by, historical factors. He offers the example of researchers who designed a medical intervention targeted to the black community in Oakland that was explicitly aimed at overcoming the lack of trust in medical system, a result of historical abuses such as the Tuskegee experiment.

For me, there are a few implications of the finding that history shapes long-term development outcomes on development practice. As a development community, we need to do more of the following:

  1. Think harder about how to integrate the study of history and culture (not just via economic history courses) into development economics and public policy education
  2. In general, place a much higher value on context-specific knowledge (language training, time spent living and working in a particular country/region) in public policy work and research. This means a much more prominent role for local experts, policymakers and historians in the public policy process.
  3. Tone down the rhetoric around the universal promise of specific technocratic solutions. Before adopting a “cut and paste” approach, policymakers should think carefully about the appropriateness of the solution for the particular context –  in particular, how historical factors may influence the solution’s impact.