Obscure Causality

"I knew something was obstructing the fish's breathing..."

I’m currently on the shelf, waiting for my new job to start, and I’ve been filling the time doing a lot of reading. Mainly fiction from developing countries (which sometimes tell us quite a lot about the process of development), but I’ve also been re-reading David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, in which he looks at why the West is so wealthy through historical analysis. To sum up a five hundred page book in a few sentences, his argument is: the West had better natural endowments, and learnt respect for property rights earlier and better than other countries, which when coupled with an innovative impulse in Judeo-Christian societies lacking in others, ensured that it pulled away from other regions early and decisively. He is absolutely adamant that ‘for the last thousand years, Europe (the West) has been the prime mover in development and modernity’.

Consensus among historians now is that Landes’ argument is, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong in a number of aspects. Most centrally, his claim that Europe has been the world leader for one thousand years has taken heavy knocks of late. Kenneth Pomeranz’ The Great Divergence was the big counterargument, suggesting that ‘European exceptionalism’ emerges much later, perhaps in the 18th Century or even a little after this. This squares very much with the view taken by those historians who have taken the widest and most comprehensive view of the emergence of the world we live in, Chris Bayly and Victor Lieberman (of whose book I’ve only read the introduction – the other couple of thousand pages will have to wait).

Despite covering a period 500 or so years ago, this argument actually has great relevance for the modern business of development and moving people out of poverty. Though the bulk of historians suggest European dominance in the world economy happens late, there is a strong argument that those things that would eventually allow Europe to pull ahead of the rest start to emerge a couple of centuries before economic development truly accelerates away.

These characteristics and advances that would propel growth include property rights and innovation as specified by Landes, but also encompassing military organization and capacity, the emergence of maritime expeditions (which would lead to extraction of resources and the mercantilist system), and the development of credit and banking services, as well as new forms of ownership and patterns of landholding This is a really important point: the motors of development took around 200 years or more to interact and whir into action for the first-movers in modern development processes. Later developers also show a long lead-in for development: Japan since the Meiji Restoration in 1868 after which changes widely held to be important preconditions for the emergence of Japan as economic power in the 20th Century were introduced.

Why is this important? It raises the possibility that the time scales we’re talking about in modern development might be completely out of proportion to the those that historical development processes have taken, because we’ve been so engaged with proximate causes of transformation rather than underlying ones. I’m not suggesting that all development processes will and should take 200 years. Far from it – you would expect first movers to take far longer catch-up nations for a number of reasons, and we know much more about economies and care much more about generalizing economic development than at any stage before in human history. That said, of we accept that underlying causes of development operate over very long time frames, there are important implications for development thinking.

Firstly, our habit of discarding approaches to development if they don’t generate transformation within a decade (think the Green revolution, Structural Adjustment, Industrial Policy) is even more deeply flawed than it first appears, since we’re seeing even now that there have been long lasting positive and negative influences from each of these experiments, and can reasonably expect direct and indirect effects to persist for several decades more. Secondly, it means that the time periods over which we’re assessing interventions may be far too short. Of course, immediate and short term impacts matter, which is why I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that we do away with evaluations at the end and five years after an intervention is complete. But what we might well find is that a policy that has a short term impact contributes nothing to longer term transformations, and vice versa. These are the kinds of effects we should be looking for evidence of – and in some cases it will be difficult to be rigourously scientific in this search, which does not diminish the importance of trying.

I’m not arguing that we should settle for development in a hundred years – like anyone else, I want to see as much progress as possible as fast as possible. What I am arguing for is a more layered approach to development: whereas now we’re quick to discard old approaches and innovate, it’s probable that we should never entirely stop analyzing and studying how our policies are working directly and indirectly – and except when we identify that they are genuinely catastrophic, we should stop discarding them altogether, but concentrate on creating the right mix of approaches, based on rolling, long term research on specific regions or countries. Again this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t generalize or be afraid of acting on evidence that suggest scale up or abandonment of programmes, but that we should be aware that our policies have much longer lifespans than we have given them credit for. In short, that we expand our searches for causality – as history shows we must to explain other development processes.

One thought on “Obscure Causality

  1. humanicontrarian

    October 4, 2011 at 5:55pm

    Interesting post. I’m way out of my depth here, but three things come to mind. First, what about some countries, like South Korea, where development appears to have taken place rather rapidly? Second, I’m not sure if it’s sound logic to compare the factors which determined Europe’s development, which was original in nature, and that of subsequent development, which has the advancements of Europe (and elsewhere) to scavenge. The first climber up a cliff takes a lot longer than the next ones.

    Lastly, I wonder what this means about all the work of development agencies, development programmes, development ministries, etc. Are they destined to create some small and beneficial sparks but fail to lift off? That’s what it looks like to me. An expensive dud.

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