Our distant ancestors had a biological constitution awfully similar to our own, and, like us, only 24 hours in a day. Arguably the main reason we have so much better lives than them is that we have better ways of doing things (broadly conceived). So it makes a great deal of sense that much of the work in development planning and foreign aid consists in exporting ways of doing things. Technology and scientific know-how are the most easily obvious examples, but we also export methods of organization and governance. People in poorer nations don't have the nice things we do, so it must be because their ways of doing things aren't as effective as our own. If we could just convince them to do things the way we do them then everyone would be rich, and Bill wouldn't get any reception in Ghana either. So wealthy nations have spent a lot of time trying to export their newest and best makes and models of laws, regulations, and government agencies to the rest of the world.
One problem with this approach--one among many--is that it assumes that our every institutional and organizational innovation is beneficial. We call this "Whig history." And while it's hard to argue that wealthy nations don't have an overall mix of institutions better adapted to producing wealth, it's quite another to assume that they're superior (at wealth production) to poor nations' institutions on every margin. It could be that the evolution of our ways of doing things has taken a wrong turn in one or more spheres of activity.
Two recent articles raise the concern of Whig history, in ways relevant to ongoing debates in development. Eustace Davis writes at African Liberty that:
Governments world-wide are struggling to solve the problem of deficiencies in their schooling systems. Politicians, teachers, educationists, administrators, employers, parents, politicians, policy analysts and students have differing ideas on how the problem should be solved. All agree that something is wrong. All have ideas on the kind of tinkering that is needed to fix the problem. The framework within which schooling functions is seldom or ever questioned; a framework that is little changed since schooling was nationalised in England in the late 19th and in the US in the early 20th centuries...
Schooling systems everywhere have become frozen in time. Schools are configured much as they were, and function in the same way they did, a century ago. A 1910 child would feel very much at home in a ‘modern’ school environment, whereas everything else in the world we live in has changed dramatically over the past 100 years.
Davis is concerned that the whole world copied England's public educational institutions after they changed for the worse (see also James Tooley's work on this topic).
And this article reports on the work of historian Eckard Höffner on 19th century Germany's copyright law, or lack thereof. Höffner argues that the absence of copyright law facilitated the spread of knowledge that was critical to Germany's industrialization and flowering scientific community. There is certainly no shortage of debate about the role of intellectual property in international development, but most of it assumes that IP law is wealth-enhancing in wealthy nations. Are we sure? How sure should we be before we export our IP laws?
Are these convincing examples of Whig history gone wild? Are there others?