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History and the post-2015 debate

November 23, 2012

Development is human progress. Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast published a powerful conceptual framework in 2009 to explain human progress already achieved, in their book Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge University Press, 2009). The book continues to be a source of great inspiration to me, and is highly relevant to the current debate on development guidance post-2015.

In an International Alert report in 2010, we summarised the book’s central argument, and I include this again here as a stimulant to useful thinking by those involved in the post-2015 debate. It reminds me above all that development is history looking forwards, hence we need to learn lessons from – though not attempt to repeat – history (or development as seen from the future…).

Their analysis is 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, landownership 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 limited access polities are vulnerability to shocks, arbitrary legal processes, personal insecurity, small governments accountable only to the elite, and patronage-based systems of governance. Open access 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 in history when three so-called “doorstep conditions” have been 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. It seems essential that post-2105 thinking pays attention to development processes that can contribute to these three kinds of changes.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Miriam Kader permalink
    December 1, 2012 4:55 am

    I like the definition of access to political and economic opportunity in emerging markets/developing nations as “limited access” vs. “open access.” Certainly applying the rule of law to the elites has much to do with this but what about the limited use or refusal to use this system which is endemic to the Middle East? My experience in the Middle East showed me that the legal system is generally considered a last resort to settling issues. Traditionally in the Middle East, the two parties in disputes are encouraged to settle issues out of court. In family issues the involvement of family delegations and restitution payments are used, and in business dealings they like to utilize arbitration. The legal system is currently ill equipped to deal with complicated issues, and as we know, the law is a living entity which is forced to grow and adapt through its rigorous use. The limited use of the system today, citing the inadequacy of the legal interpretation, ensures that it will be equally if not more inadequate to deal with issues which arise tomorrow. A robust political and economic system cannot be built on such flimsy foundations.

  2. December 3, 2012 2:48 am

    Interesting, and a nice example of how historians’ analytical frameworks can be applied in thinking about the present day in a particular context, and about the posibility and desirability of change there. I wonder what change in circumstances would induce those involved to consider a more formal, “rule of law” approach?


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