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Development in the long-run: Historical context is messy and making sense of it can be messier

Roxanne Bauer's picture
This is the fourth post in a series of six in which Michael Woolcock, Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank and lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, discusses critical ideas within the field of Social Development.
 

Sometimes, things get worse before they get better. Students often struggle to learn new concepts but once they do, their ability to integrate those concepts and build on them accelerates.  Likewise, adults may experience the struggle of adopting new technology before realizing its benefits.  Organizations going through “change management” may similarly experience concern and confusion as departments realign before finding ways to adapt and re-build.  The idea that change experiences a dip at first— or at least that it feels that way— is known by social scientists and economists alike as the J-curve.

For Michael Woolcock, the J-curve is useful as it helps explain why historical progress doesn't always feel like progress. As he says, “what is going on now is always a product of the whole stream of things that have gone on in the past. Often, the institutional imperatives that we face are very present-tense oriented, and they’re often willfully indifferent to taking a serious look in the rear-view mirror…”  As individuals or collectively as societies, we often fail to reflect how our current experiences fit into a grander scheme. Michael asserts that how history is told, by whom it’s told and how people come to understand who they are as a people is a contested process. There is no singular view, and it is important to recognize that people have different interests in articulating a particular version of history and identity.

He adds that another key part to better understanding history and context is recognizing the non-linear nature of change processes, which involve many twists and turns in the storyline and require not only tweaks to the way power is managed but also to how expectations are formed and met. During this process of change, groups debate and forge new ideas of how to structure and think about society— and they do so in a messy and uncontrolled manner. This is why most contentious forms of political change follow a J-curve and take a long time to experience what would popularly be considered as positive outcomes. 

Development in the long-run: Historical context is messy and making sense of it can be messier

Considering that the change and evolution we see in the world is not linear, evaluation is inherently difficult because we don’t know where rock bottom is and we are almost always absorbed by our current reality. It is only when we step back and consider our times as part of the larger course of history, that we realize how small our individual windows to the world are.  This is one reason, as Michael Woolcock puts it, why moral leadership is incredibly important for international development. It takes strength and certainty push onward when you don’t know when the turnaround will come.

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