How do we get better at learning from history? Please help design a research programme.

May 14, 2015 23 By Duncan Green

Couple of tech glitches have delayed Jean Boulton’s response to yesterday’s post by Owen Barder, so here’s one I made earlier.

Why aren’t we more systematic in learning from history, when it comes to developmental success? Over a decade ago, Ha-Joon Chang the-one-lesson-weve-learned-from-history-is-that-we-have-not-learned-any-of-historys-lessonsrocked the world of World Trade Organization delegates with ‘Kicking Away the Ladder’, which showed that the very infant industry policies that developing countries were being pushed to give up were at the heart of rich countries’ own take-off episodes. Recently, a few of us have started thinking through how to do the same thing on the politics of redistributive governments.

I’ve come across similarly useful ‘lessons of history’ exercises in other areas. A great study by Santosh Mehrotra and Richard Jolly on the role of the state in guaranteeing healthcare and education for all; Ha-Joon coordinated a great study for the FAO on agricultural policy in successful economies in Europe and elsewhere.

But why stop there? For example, how about:

Civil service reform: what have been the politics and economics of the shift to (more or less) meritocratic bureaucracies?

Environmental legislation: Back in the 1940s, my grandmother died in the London smog, what policies and institutions ensured that kind of thing no longer happens (or at least only rarely) in the UK and other rich economies?

Then there’s access to justice, reconstruction after conflicts, equal rights legislation, gender-based violence, financial sector regulation, competition policy, universal secondary education, curbing private and public sector corruption and so on.

Aldous_Huxley_-_That_menFor each of these, it would be interesting to look both at the now developed countries in Europe, North America etc, and the most successful among the developing countries since 1945, and see if any common patterns emerge (as Ha Joon found on both trade and agricultural policy).

I blogged about this back in 2011 and didn’t get much of a response, but I reckon it’s time to have another go, not least because I know someone who might be able to put some research funding into it.

One important question is identifying the ideal host institution – it has to tick at least four boxes: to be genuinely interested in history, to take a multi-disciplinary approach, to be socially progressive and to be academically credible.

This is a short post because I’m primarily looking for advice – what do you think of the idea? Which issues would you say are most likely to benefit from such an approach? And which institutional home would be most likely to work? Cambridge historian Simon Szreter reckons the History and Policy network might be a good place to start, so I may drop into their next seminar on 3 June to see what they are up to.

Over to you.

Update: And here’s me with a 3 minute pitch for the lessons of history project at a conference in February