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Historians can play key role in tackling world's problems

29 Sep 2011

Historians should play more of a role in tackling some of the greatest questions facing the planet, according to a new book.

The project - a collaboration between The University of Manchester's Brooks World Poverty Institute, the World Bank and History & Policy - enlists the views of ten of the world's leading historians.

Along with seven policy advisors to governments and development agencies across the world, History, Historians and Development Policy examines the part historians can play in a range of policy areas, including social protection, public health, public education and natural resource management.

Honorary BWPI Fellow Professor Michael Woolcock, one of the editors, says historians should be taken more seriously as they have much to offer politicians, NGOs and business, though there are barriers to overcome.

He said: "Historians often give finely calibrated answers to difficult questions, and those answers rarely map neatly onto tools that policymakers have available to them.

"Some are rightly concerned they will be associated with bad policies if their work is oversimplified.

"But the system is at fault too: historians are primarily rewarded for engaging with other historians but not policy makers or the public.

"Being too popular is a badge of shame for many historians. This has to change.

"Institutions and policies don't fall out of the sky but evolve, and good historians can provide an important appraisal of that process.

“Most problems have been encountered before, so historians can also help to expand the range of options available for consideration.

“As we engage with these problems, we need to take both history and historians more seriously."

Professor Simon Szreter, founding partner of History & Policy and an editor of the book, said:

"Social scientists have been adept at creating and analysing theories of development to guide development. Where history can help is in showing how those general theories have been and will be adapted and changed by the particular context of each country or locality - as well as drawing out wider lessons. And history can turn some of our most established policy prescriptions on their head.

"We often see social welfare as an ultimate prize - to be established after a country has developed. But Richard Smith's chapter in our book shows how Britain - the home of the Industrial Revolution - had a universal social safety net two centuries before industrialisation. In fact, that safety net helped encourage labour mobility and promote development.

"Development economists now accept that institutions matter: historians' insight is essential to help them understand those institutions. This book is a step towards making it happen."

Learning the lessons of history:

  • Understanding how universal literacy was made a reality in the West can help contribute to its attainment elsewhere.
  • Universal provision of birth certificates and poverty relief was a key driver of Britain’s initial economic take-off.
  • The attainment of health care as a right for all citizens in India has been necessary but insufficient for its actual realisation.
  • Effective institutions are usually unique hybrids of local and foreign adaptations, not wholesale transplants from one context to another.