History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes – Lessons for international development?

In my recent post I dipped back into International Alert‘s 2010 report Working with the grain to change the grain, to share a way in which Alert had framed 'development' – human progress, as the report had it, or perhaps a version of the philosophical idea of 'human flourishing'.

This was in response to a great deal of online and political agonising currently about the levels of overseas aid provided by the UK. One of the sources Deborrah Baksh and I found useful in writing the report then was Douglass C. North, John J. Wallis and Barry R. Weingast’s book, Violence and social orders: A conceptual framework for interpreting recorded human history (Cambridge University Press, 2009). In this, they shared the conceptual framework they had developed to explain human progress. Now that people are asking again what development means – or, in the NGO jargon, refreshing the development narrative – this framework is particularly relevant.

The book’s analysis was based on five key interlocking premises:

  • Economic and political progress are intimately intertwined, and cannot be considered separately if they are to be understood.
  • Violence is endemic to human society. Ruling elites have a strong incentive to retain control of violence, so they can control access to resources, ensuring sufficient peace and stability to allow them and their allies to benefit from such access, and using violence to disrupt access by others.
  • Access to economic and political opportunities becomes increasingly open as societies develop. In early stages of development, opportunities are restricted to and bargained and fought over by the elite(s), but then become more open to others. Only when access became more open has sustainable progress occurred.
  • Understanding organisations, institutions (i.e. the rules of the game), beliefs, values and culture is critical to understanding how society is organised and evolves.
  • One of the critical changes taking place as societies develop is from the personal exercise of economic and political opportunity and power (e.g. big man politics, land ownership linked to the capacity for organised violence) to the impersonal (e.g. shareholder-owned corporations, freehold land and offices of state).

North and his colleagues identify a process of transition from what they term a limited access order to an open access order. In a limited access order, political and economic opportunities are limited to the elites. The characteristics of such polities are vulnerability to shocks, arbitrary legal processes, personal insecurity, small governments accountable only to the elite, and patronage-based systems of governance. An open access order is characterised by greater personal security, larger and more decentralised government, participatory citizen-based governance, the rule of law, and a more resilient political economy.

While considerable evolution and back-and-forth variation is possible within these broad parameters, a fairly rapid step-change towards open access has occurred when three so-called 'doorstep conditions' were met:

  • The establishment of rule of law for the elites;
  • The existence of 'perpetually lived' (i.e. institutionalised) forms of public and private elite organisations, including the state itself; and
  • Consolidated control by the state of the military and other forces of security.

Once these conditions are established for the elite, circumstances can lead them to be extended to include other members of society, and a broadening of access to political and economic opportunities can occur quite quickly. This step-change is reckoned to have happened for example in the UK and the US around the end of the eighteenth century. North and his co-authors claim that most societies – and certainly all those known as fragile contexts – have yet to make this step-change from limited to open access order.

Like North et al., I  believe there are many lessons from history that can guide people in considering their development today. History does not repeat itself, but as someone has said before, it does rhyme. If you care to look back at the conceptual framework I shared in my previous post, you will see that it rhymes with many of the ideas summarised above.


This blog was originally published on www.philvernon.net.

Photo: Duong attends a secondary school funded by the Asian Development Bank, Vietnam, 2012 © Asian Development Bank (Creative Commons)