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The Past as a Foreign Country: Taking History and Historians Seriously in Development

Michael Woolcock's picture

While there is now a consensus that institutions and history matter for understanding development outcomes, 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. Historians hardly speak with a single voice or from a unified perspective, but at best their absence from policy discussions leads to lost opportunities to enrich the quality of scholarship and expand the range of policy responses; at worst it results in partisans erroneously or selectively invoking ‘history’ in support of their cause, or to claims (as one of us heard in a recent meeting) that “the history of the Middle East is largely a black box” merely because the methods historians deploy are not always those preferred by economists. 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.