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

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

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23 Responses to “How do we get better at learning from history? Please help design a research programme.”
  1. Elle

    Hi Duncan, really interesting post. I think it is key that people are reminded of history, at the very least, as it really helps us understand the present, how institutions have evolved, and why we are in our present situation. Better still, as you are suggesting, we analyse history in-depth in attempts to find lessons to help us today.

    I think this is particularly important in international development as it is a fairly fledgling enterprise. In the UK our first development act was in 1929, development aid was primarily intended to improve UK trade and benefit UK business for a long time, perhaps (apart from attempts under Labour governments) until DFID was formed in 1997? A few years after which tied aid (which is btw over 50% of aid) became illegal in the UK. I know you are talking about development success, but I also think it helps to know the context. Plus the context impacts so heavily on our “success”.

    I guess what I’m thinking, or what your post made me think, is it is great if academics can analyse history and put what they find in palatable form to convey to others. But for practitioners, let’s try to be aware of the origins of the sector as it helps. Perhaps everyone else already is!

    The history event sounds great, have fun! I’ll be seeing Simon Szreter the next day for a History and Health event in Cambridge.

  2. Pablo Yanguas

    My former advisor Tom Callaghy did some of this back in his 1984 book on Zaire, comparing Mobutu’s patrimonial administration to 17th century France and newly-independent Latin America. Unfortunately academia does not encourage this right now – you either study development or Western history, not both. The most you get is sweeping historical overviews a la Fukuyama or North. Is there money in the policy world for this? If so, sign me up – time to put that history degree to good use…

  3. aldo.matteucci

    as fate is want to do, I was just reading these lines from AO Hirschman’s biography: “at the core of his possibilism was the idea that people had a right to what he called a “non-projected future.”

    “Lessons from history” are attempts to project past experience into the future, ignoring context – and timing.

    To the extent that history is a trove of “possibilities,” it is fine. Too many experiences have gone done to oblivion. In particular, study of the past will help us become aware of opaque and discrete forces we only imperfectly understand.

    The danger is unwittingly to turn history into patent medicine.

    • Duncan Green

      Completely agree Aldo, but that’s hardly an argument for the total historical amnesia that afflicts an awful lot of policy debates – history as an engine of possibility sounds about right

    • Philipp Lepenies

      Hirschman and History:
      I like the point raised regarding a country’s right to a
      “non-projected future”-

      However, Aldo misinterprets Hirschman on the issue of history. Hirschman critzised what he called the Visiting-Economist-Syndrome, i.e. the habit of foreign experts to prescribe universal remedies without an in-depth knowledge of local circumstances. He also found fault with the idea that experts often projected a utopian, but also universal, ideal future before the eyes of local governments that was to come out of proposed development policy measures – at the time (high time of Modernization Theory, remember!) this was some notion of international convergence or moderninzation along Western standards. And it was exactly the lack of success in realizing this utopian future that lead governments of less developed countries to develop what Hirschman called a chronic lament of “Fracasomanía” – the inabilitiy to see positive change although the overall “projected future” might not have materialized as planned- and instead dub every single effort taken as a complete “fracaso” – failure (resulting in political instability, military coups in Latin America etc).

      For Hirschman, it was precisely the lack of historical knowledge – a knowledge of the history of countries, cultures, regions that was at the heart of unsuccessful development endeavours. His writings are full of historical references – or reminders of how wrong things can go if one does not take history into consideration – and it is no coincidence either that his later writings on Social Science are mainly historical (“The Passions and the Interests”, “Shifting Involvements”, “The Rhetoric of Reaction”). And his notion of possibilism is also based on a knowledge of history – How should one asses the realistic possiblities of a given local context without a knowledge of history? Impossible.

      According to Hirschman, Economists, and development economists have to be disciplinary “trespassers” – and a knowledge of history is one of the main assets to acquire.

  4. Patrick Hoffmann

    Dear Duncan, fantastic points – having studied History myself (before getting depressed with how inward-looking it is), I couldn’t welcome this argument more! I haven’t heard much of History & Policy while at Cambridge but may I suggest CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. By nature multidisciplinary, a very dynamic part of the university (there aren’t many…), and they draw on plenty of people from the History Faculty. So they may be right on the money for your four criteria.

    More generally, Cambridge is apparently developing two ‘research clusters’ both for international education and urbanisation, so hopefully there will be plenty of scope for multidisciplinary work there and they may welcome an impulse to include history too. Don’t know quite where they are at with that, however.

  5. Paul Spray

    Two thoughts:

    1. A key element is to use historians’ methods to be clear about the different contexts. A bad example of what to do occurred in the literature on the role of institutions in development, where some interesting questions were asked, but with the bizarre econometric approach of using the mortality rates of colonial settlers as an instrument for (i.e., loosely, a measure of) the quality of institutions in a country. Rather than inquiring into the institutions themselves.
    2. There was some reflection in the Jubilee 2000 debt relief movement about the potential lessons from the anti-slavery movement.

  6. Alice Evans

    Definitely concur about the importance of this type of research. Also agree that Ha Joon Chang is objectively awesome.

    In gender, there have been some studies seeking to learn lessons from more egalitarian countries, e.g. ‘Global Perspectives on Gender Equality: Reversing the Gaze’, co-edited by Naila Kabeer, Agneta Stark, Edda Magnus
    (Personally I think this project sounded exciting but perhaps could have gone further, explored more questions)

    Leaping to a different topic, I think current interest in domestic taxation is also historically motivated – see for instance Mick Moore’s work on taxation and state-building

    There’s also much to gain by looking at historical epochs when social policy was prioritised, such as in newly-independent African states: But we don’t even need to look that far back, e.g. recent progress in Tanzania and Uganda:

    And what about broadening the research to explore histories of why stuff doesn’t work – e.g. Atul Kohli’s superb book,
    Or hopping back to gender, my own work on path dependency in Zambia:

    Besides history, I think there’s much to learn from comparative work, e.g. “Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects” Patrick Heller’s article, ‘Moving the state’, is a personal fave.

  7. Florencia Guerzovich

    Hi Duncan, perhaps the work of comparative-historical sociologists/political scientists can help as building block? I suspect that their efforts to be systematic & take power seriously can be of interest. Issues tacked by this crowd include the developmental state, the welfare state, democracy & authoritarianism, varieties of capitalism, among others
    There’s a book forthcoming in August that may be of interest Advances in Comparative Historical Analysis ed by Jim Mahoney & Kathy Thelen
    Meantime For some examples
    James Mahoney’s syllabus with some key academic works , includes works on revolutions & business & politics in Latin America
    Tulia Falletti’s work on decentralisation or health care reforms
    Paul Pierson on the welfare state

  8. Tom Berliner

    Hi Duncan,

    It is a little puzzling that we don’t spend more time looking at history for answers to some of our most taxing development questions. Over at ODI, the Development Progress project specifically exists to highlight progress in development efforts over the past 20 years, unpicking the historic drivers behind these achievements and revealing some of the lessons we can learn. Although we only go back as far as 1990, we’re finding across many of our case studies that changes in the last 20 years have their roots in policies and politics dating back much further, from the 1950s and onwards.

    Given the numerous (but not always widely shared) breakthroughs in education, health, political representation, gender, employment and growth, we’re continuing to push for historical learning to inform the development industry going forward and drive progress into the future.

  9. Tom Goodfellow

    Hi Duncan

    Greetings from Dakar (one of the less absorbing ILC conference sessions;))

    Very interesting idea, and this comes at a fortuitous time as far as Sheffield research is concerned – myself and others involved in international development here had a great discussion a short while back with some colleagues from the History department about exactly this. Also, on the urban side the History dept have just started a Centre for the Study of the City in History, and at the launch event there was lots of enthusiasm for comparative historical research on, for example, the social impacts of particular innovations in communication or healthcare. E.g. what were some of the unanticipated effects of particular technological innovations and how might we learn from these today? How do communities’ social expectations of reform affect implementation, and what are some of political outcomes of reform projects? What can we learn about how major social or environmental innovations in the past have been exploited for political ends?

    I also think there is interesting mileage in thinking not only about comparisons with historical experience, but what we in development can learn from historical methods. After all, people working in countries with state capacity issues are always complaining about ‘the data problem’ – while historians sitting in nearby buildings have been working with ‘poor data’ since their discipline began!

    Given where I am now (at the International Land Coalition biennial forum in Dakar), I should mention the enormous historical importance of land reform and what we can learn from the past. There were ‘land grabs’, ‘indigenous communities’, concerns about ‘sustainability’ and ‘food sovereignty’ in history too – though of course the language was different (and, as an aside, it would be interesting to consider such differences in language and their implications…). A bit more on the history of land struggles, successes and failures across the world at this Forum would have been good – though of course there is limited time and so many pressing issues.

    Anyway, lots of other ideas and would be very happy to discuss!


  10. Nick Hare


    This is a significant problem, but I think part of the problem is that phrasing it as ‘learning from history’ means the message won’t float with busy decision-makers and analysts. I’m a former civil servant who led a team in Defence looking at ways of improving research and analysis, and anything that looked like ‘lessons from history’ frequently got pigeonholed by our customers as navel-gazing irrelevance.

    I would suggest an approach in which we stop talking about ‘history’ and instead talk about ‘data’. ‘Learning lessons from history’ can be re-presented faithfully as e.g. ‘appraising and testing policy using past datasets and case studies’. Suddenly it’s not about bewhiskered professors in libraries, but about algorithms, business intelligence, and design of cost-effective interventions.

    I realise this may be hard to swallow for many historians but I’ve seen ‘learning from history’ be consigned to the ‘interesting but irrelevant’ pile so many times that I think the message has to change.

    • Duncan Green

      Ouch, rings all too true Nick (and I’m still scarred by hearing research described as ‘beard stroking’ by senior advocacy types in Oxfam)

  11. Kate

    Must be some sort of ‘learning from history’ thing in the air today – this just popped into my inbox. Speaker may be a useful contact for you or others interested in this approach:
    Dr Sarah Wilson, lecturer in the School of Law at the University of York, will be discussing the value of incorporating a historical dimension to research projects to social justice and beyond. This will include a discussion of the social justice issues arising from financial exclusion, poverty, and a lack of access to basic financial services. This event is interdisciplinary, and will demonstrate the value of historical approaches to all areas of research.

  12. Justin Williams

    Hi Duncan – thanks for bringing up this very interesting subject. I have been hooked on history and development since hearing Ha Joon Chang speak as a development studies Masters student in 2003, and wrote my dissertation on 19th century trade policy. You are probably aware of Simon Szreter’s book History, Historians and Development Policy: A Necessary Dialogue, co-written with Rao and Woolcock of the World Bank – this is an excellent introduction to the issues. The introductory chapter is available publically at

    One plug that I would like to make in any discussion about history and development is for understanding the history of development itself. Too often people trot out the lines about development beginning in 1949 with President Truman’s Point Four programme. In fact the origins of development go back to the late colonial period (the 20s and 30s)… Frederick Cooper has persuasively shown how development started as an effort to legitimise colonial rule, but later was used against the colonialists and fuelled independence movements. Many aspects of development today have colonial roots (e.g. the bias in favour of rural development over urban, which was originally about trying to prevent ‘natives’ being ‘detribalised’ and posing a political threat to their masters…).

    The other area of priority for me would be learning lessons between historians and aid evaluators. In my view evaluators could learn from historians in terms of their use of sources, their generally questioning and sceptical approach to evidence they find, and the high priority they give to textual evidence (as opposed to interviews which I think are over used by evaluators – especially when they talk to development partners and direct recipients of aid!) But historians could also learn from evaluators especially on the importance of the counterfactual, something which is implicit in a lot of history writing but which is still regarded as a bit louche amongst many historians.

    Keep up posted if this gets off the ground – would be very interested to stay involved.

  13. Nanci Lee

    Great post. And reminder. There is a great, now fairly dated piece by Dr. Siebel called History Matters related to microfinance and savings groups. It analyzes loan funds in the 18th century in Ireland and Germany.

    I appreciated the work of IDS, University of Sussex on social movements in Brazil, South Africa and India for the same reason.

    Part of doing development differently surely means our analysis has to be grounded better in history and context. I fear “best practices” and search for “replicable models” are two of the culprits and I’m quite guilty.

  14. Duncan Green

    Thanks everyone, your great ideas and plethora of links have left me feeling suitably cowed! Will mull this over, but if anyone wants to take this idea and run with it, please get in touch – I’ll cheer you on from the sidelines, if nothing else.

  15. Rebecca Simson

    Thanks for this post Duncan. As someone who has gone from being a researcher at ODI to a PhD student in economic history, I’m clearly already one of the converted.

    There is lots of research coming out of the economic history discipline that looks at precisely such issues – the challenge is that this research is often too narrowly defined, context specific and preoccupied with statistical significance to be easily accessible to a development/policy audience (e.g., I attended a seminar yesterday searching for a relationship between municipal loans for water and sanitation infrastructure and a reduction in mortality in 19th century England and Wales.) The challenge is to synthesise and draw relevant lessons from the often conflicting evidence, something Ha-Joon Chang, William Easterly, Paul Collier and the likes are particularly good at.

    That said, if you’re looking for a broad-sweep history of the shift from patronage-based to meritocratic civil services in Europe and the US, Merilee Grindle has written just that book: Jobs for the Boys: Patronage and the State in Comparative Perspective. (

    Re: civil service reform, I’m currently studying the politics of public employment and pay in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda since independence. I’m more interested in understanding the broader shifts in public employment levels, skills composition and earnings (c.1950 – present) than the efficacy of any particular policy reform, but happy to tell you more if this sounds interesting.

  16. Sam Gardner

    Hi Duncan,

    Indeed very fundamental. In essence, forgetting this historical perspective, means that all development work up to now was rather speculative and ideological instead of scientific.
    It boils down to the Pritchett Test. As an organisation we have been doing rural development as most of the poor are there, to what avail without power changes or cities?

    What I mean, we should look into every aspect of what we do in this way. I support it fully. And meanwhile look at ever project that does not pass the Pritchett test as ideological instead of scientific.

    The list is long. Microcredit instead of savings. Improved wood stoves instead of gas stoves. Nearly everything? Women’s self help groups of Pritchett’s example……

  17. Andrew Ward

    Working in agricultural research for development I have many concerns that we are not learning from the positive and negative past experiences. Surely learning from history is a chance to join up the positives to bring about significant change.

    If there could be a database of agricultural systems past experience through which project development teams could interact with to identify previous projects (or collective experience) whose history would be relevant to the proposed work might this lead to more effective investments in agriculture??????

  18. Heather Marquette

    Pablo is absolutely right in that researchers aren’t encouraged to have a deep understanding of the history behind whatever they’re researching, and there is rarely time or space in an increasingly pressurised PhD to develop this. Then there’s the pressure to publish (or perish) and journal articles don’t offer a lot of space for history. And then there’s the pressure to have impact, when policy makers and practitioners keep asking for 1 pagers and answers to the ‘so what’ question.

    But, as other commenters have said, there’s much more of this sort of research out there than you’d think. You’re right to flag corruption as an area where there’s little understanding of the history behind the practice and little evidence of policy that’s historically aware. But there’s all sorts of good historical research out there on corruption. Someone in a previous comment flagged up Merilee Grindle’s ‘Jobs for the Boys’, which is excellent, but there are lots of others. Daniel Jordan Smith’s work on corruption in Nigeria. Vinod Pavarala’s work on corruption in India. My dear friend, James McConnel’s work on patronage politics and nationalism in Ireland. Bo Rothstein’s prolific work on [fill in the blank – Sweden, China, Islam…]. Recently, ANTICORRP has started publishing outputs from a whole work stream on comparative historical perspectives (, including fantastic work by Ronald Kroeze in Amsterdam. The research is out there, but there is a perennial disconnect between research and practice.

    What I’m struggling to get my head around is the disconnect between this post and the one on complexity theory. Complex human systems don’t exist outside specific histories that lead to a particular conglomeration of complicated political, social, cultural and economic factors. And yet for some reason we’re not supposed to look to research to try to help understand and explain these? Action now, damn the history?

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