Under the thumb of history?

  • Blog Post Date 13 August, 2021
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Abhijit Banerjee

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


In June 2021, Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee (Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, MIT) delivered the inaugural Shaibal Gupta Memorial Lecture organised by Asian Development Research Institute, broadly discussing the role of history in development economics.

An important body of recent work emphasises the idea of the ‘long arm of history’, that is, history cannot be escaped totally and has durable effects. For example, countries that were British colonies several years ago, continue to have British-style legal systems. However, Prof. Banerjee contends that there is no logical reason why persistence has to mean determinism – it could just be that things are slow to change due to inertia or coordination failures. Persistence does not necessarily guarantee that there will be no change; just that change takes place in unexpected ways, for instance, long-term consequences on a country’s economy on account of sudden death of the leader.

At some level, one can never answer the question of determinism – it is a big philosophical debate with no real resolution. Yet, there is not enough evidence on determinism for us to become pessimistic. There are many examples of positive change in welfare outcomes over the past 20-50 years. Hence, in Prof. Banerjee’s view, we should continue to take practical action – with humility – and account for any specific constraints of culture, politics and institutions.

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