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A Chaotic Collection

History, Historians and Development Policy: A Necessary Dialogue edited by C A Bayly, Vijayendra Rao, Simon Szreter, Michael Woolcock (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press), 2011; pp xii + 276, price not stated.

A Chaotic Collection

Tirthankar Roy

he book under review came out of the engagement of three of the editors in the World Bank’s World Development Report 2006, on equity and development. One of the premises of the report is that history matters to development processes, and therefore, development policy. The book draws the further conclusion that “if history matters to development policy...perhaps historians... might have something important to contribute” (p xi) to the discourse on development policy. This is hardly an original idea. To their credit, the editors decided to advance the programme by forming a larger group. The collective consisted of historians and development economists, mainly the former, who joined a workshop.

The Project

A long overview chapter, written by three of the editors (Chapter 1), sets out the thinking behind the book. The chapter lists a variety of reasons why development economists need to study history, and how historians might contribute to policy analysis. It is suggested that history reminds us how deeply contexts matter to the outcome of policy, reveals to us the full nature of the processes of change, and warns us against teleological and linear readings of change over time. The introduction also makes the helpful, if familiar, distinction between economic history and historical econo mics, the former being more region-bound and more contextual, and the latter closer to applied economic theory. It is evident that what the editors call “a necessary dialogue” is a dialogue between historical economics and econo mic history.

Since the editors embark on the project from the perspective of historical economics, the fruitfulness of an exchange with historians depends on why they think historical economics is important to understanding the process

conversation with historians? Should we
not bring in demography, geography,
power, and culture? By “culture” I do not
mean institutions all over again, but atti
tudes about gender, propensity to share
useful knowledge, attitude towards edu
book review cation, associational cultures, not to men
tion caste, religion, and ethni city. These
History, Historians and Development Policy: doors remain shut because the editors
A Necessary Dialogue edited by C A Bayly, Vijayendra adopt the NIE straitjacket too readily.
Rao, Simon Szreter, Michael Woolcock (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press), 2011; pp xii + 276, The Essays
price not stated. A collection such as this one should be
evaluated by its parts, that is, with refer
of economic change. Here, the editors ence to the individual essays. This is so
display a streak of conservatism. Altho because, by the very nature of the
ugh they respectfully doff their hats to project individual contributors tend to
all kinds of third world history, inclu answer the question, how their fi elds of
ding extreme variants of postmodernism specialisation serve the aim of the book,
that would deny the possibility of any slightly differently from one another.
meaningful dialogue on development at The collection consists of three types of
all, it does not take much effort to see contributions: (1) historians of the devel
that in their own minds, the conception oping world use their expertise to refl ect
of why history matters is framed with on issues of comparative economic
reference to new institutional economic growth, (2) historians of the richer
(NIE) history as articulated by Douglass world use their expertise to refl ect on
North and the empirical scholarship comparative economic growth, and (3) a
directly inspired by North. History set of short commentaries on the empiri
matters because such things as law, ju cal papers. The third set, consisting of
diciary, and property rights matter; this essays by Uma Kothari, Ravi Kanbur,
is the implicit and unquestioned foun- Lant Pritchett, David Hall-Matthews,
dation of the project, seemingly a hang and Mick Moore, I shall ignore. These
over from the editors’ association with pieces do not add substantial value, and
the World Bank. by adopting a sermonising tone at times,
Now, there is no specific merit in using harm the cause. The other two sets
the NIE as a launching pad. NIE as a foun deserve attention.
dation would be an acceptable one if we C A Bayly is the only editor of the four
could be sure that (a) law and property who does not contribute to the overview
rights predict development outcomes chapter that sets out the goals. But he
more thoroughly than, say, geographical compensates for this by writing a chap
or cultural differences between socie ter on colonial India that serves these
ties, and that (b) in the present-day goals more directly than all the other
developing world, law and property chapters. Bayly’s piece is motivated by
rights in the past had been less secure one set of writings first published around
and less well defined than in the richer 2000-01 (better known as the Acemoglu
world. NIE does not offer any worth Johnson-Robinson or AJR thesis) sug
while evidence to establish these propo gesting that former colonies in the tropi
sitions. They are articles of faith. In fact, cal world stayed poor because the west
the evidence of early modern and colo ern colonisers did not want to establish
nial India unambiguously contradicts in these areas the good laws derived
proposition (b). All that should lead us from their own institutional tradition.
to ask, are there other approaches and We need not go into the reasons why
schools of thinking within historical they did not. Colonialism in these
economics that could be used to build a regions erected “extractive” states rather

Economic & Political Weekly

may 19, 2012 vol xlviI no 20


than developmental states. The opposite effect ensued in the so-called settler colonies in the temperate zones. Bayly’s chapter offers a polite rebuttal to the two assumptions that lie beneath the theory – that institutional differences made the most difference, and that indigenous institutions in the poorer world were inferior to begin with. Bayly points out, rightly, that the AJR thesis shows how historians can join the debate on comparative economic growth. They can do so by talking about indigenous institutions and how these evolved under European colonialism. The chapter stresses the obvious but often forgotten point that the recent economic growth and entrepreneurial flourish in India cannot be understood except with reference to both indigenous traditions (mercantile customs for example) and effects of foreign rule (growth of the print media for example). I could add to this, both indigenous tradition and foreign rule made for positive and negative outcomes.

Of the other chapters in the fi rst set, the most ambitious is that of R Bin Wong. Like Bayly, Bin Wong suggests a precise way historians could join the development discourse. With 18th century China under the Qing dynasty as the context, the chapter shows how “continued reworking of earlier practices and priorities” (p 103) contributed to the making of present-day priorities. A concern for social welfare is often associated with a democratic/western political heritage. Opposing this view, Bin Wong shows that in China, the roots of present concerns with welfare had owed to an indigenous imperialist discourse on welfare. The thesis is based on the view that early modern China had a “well-ordered society in which the state spent considerable sums” (p 105) on water control, food security, and education. A recent book by Bin Wong coauthored with Jean-Laurent Rosenthal claims also that China in this time was politically unified and unusually peaceful by European standards. These images of a golden age have been questioned by other China experts in reviews of the book, who consider these impressions to lack sufficient empirical substance. The argument of the present chapter is exposed to that criticism.

Of the three other chapters in this set, Sunil S Amrith presents a long-range view of health policy in India, making the points that the colonial regime spent too little on public health by staying focused on epidemic management, and that this heritage infl uenced important features of the policy on public health that took shape after colonial rule ended. Tim Harper shows how indigenous and precolonial systems of education in south-east Asia shaped education policy choices in the postcolonial times. Keith Breckenridge argues that private enterprise in mining, critical to African development and inequality in the 20th century, was predicated on particular forms of property rights, and shows the historical roots of these rights in the nature of the global fi rms that connected the world market with the mining regions.

The second set on the history of the richer world consists of four papers by Richard Smith, David Vincent, Paul Warde, and Stephen J Kunitz. Smith

RIOTS AND AFTER IN MUMBAI Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation Meena Menon Riots and After in Mumbai provides a synoptic record of events in Mumbai, focusing essentially on the history of riots in the city. Using this framework, it attempts to understand the sociopolitical and cultural realities of present-day Mumbai through a collection of narratives of the people affected by the communal riots of 1992–93. The author uses a novel approach, combining historical records from the pre-Independence era (1893–1945) and personal interviews of both Muslims and Hindus living in the city. The book also looks into the political manipulations that ordinary people of both communities alike are subjected to by the ruling powers and political parties. This volume will help the reader form a bridge between the Mumbai’s past and present in order to better understand the relations between the two communities. ōSDJHVō`+DUGEDFNDEFRAGMENTING INDIA Riding a Bullet through the Gathering Storm Harish Nambiar Defragmenting India is an account of the various fault lines of Indian society quivering in the temblors that the 2002 Hindu–Muslim communal riots of Gujarat sent across the nation. The riots form the dramatic backdrop to the travelogue narrative of a motorbike trip of the author and his friend. The book maps the urban consciousness of India by juxtaposing lives, issues and situations of educated and the uneducated, craftsman and conservationist, teacher and businessman, daughters and drunks from small towns and non-metro cities of India. The narrative uses oral history, folklore, local legends, historical events, research papers, imaginative speculations, biographic anecdotes and graphic reportage in an elliptical and poetic narrative to weave a picture of DFRXQWU\LQpX[ōSDJHVō`3DSHUEDFNThe way out of a violent conflict cannot be more violence! Los Angeles „ London „ New Delhi „ Singapore „Washington DC

may 19, 2012 vol xlviI no 20

Economic Political Weekly


shows that the idea of welfare provisions in England originated in the design of the old poor laws, especially its reliance on the parish authority and taxation, which kept the inevitable freerider problems under check. Vincent’s paper explores the prehistory of the idea of universal literacy in western Europe. Warde compares the experiences of resourcerich England and resource-poor Holland in the way both societies engaged with trade and innovation in the early modern era. Kunitz contributes a study of the evolution of health policy among the indigenous Americans, who survived violence and diseases unleashed by the settlers, as well as racist and Darwinist attitudes of the settler states towards the indigenes, thanks to political activism and campaign by individuals.

Uneasy Relationship

How well does the book serve its purpose, which is, to draw lessons relevant for development policy from historians who study past societies? It does serve the purpose to some extent, in the chaotic and tiresome way that many workshop volumes do, by offering bits and pieces of interesting ideas. In the present case, these efforts do not jell together well at all. This is a failing of the editorial team. The editors leave the target too vague, and yet inexplicably restrict themselves to discussing institutions, not trying enough to define the analytical agenda appropriate to the immensely broad range of things that historians uncover.

A comparison of the conception of the project with the individual chapters hints at a particular obstacle that stands in the way of a dialogue between economics and history. Historians can say anything they like; economists will hear only those words which help them construct simple models of economic growth, usually with one explanatory variable. It is this tendency that some of the more subversive traditions in history writing react against, leading to a virtual expulsion of economic history from history itself. A really useful dialogue should require economists to unlearn some economics to begin with. Merely citing everybody in a deferential manner, as the editors do, does not make for a real conversation.

Tirthankar Roy ( is with the economic history department, London School of Economics and Political Science, London.

Economic Political Weekly

may 19, 2012 vol xlviI no 20

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