Understanding Economic Development

Understanding Economic Development

A Global Transition from Poverty to Prosperity?

Colin White

This fascinating book considers one of the most important problems in economics: the inception of modern economic development. There is at present no satisfactory explanation of the inception of modern economic development; an excessive focus on either pure theory or on unique histories limits the explanatory power. This book realises the need to integrate the two approaches, moving beyond the proximate causes of economic theory to review the role in an analytic narrative of significant ultimate causes – geography, risk environments, human capital, and institutions.

Chapter 1: The Role of Theory and History in Explaining Modern Economic Development

Colin White

Subjects: development studies, development economics, economics and finance, development economics


The road to development is extremely complex, and the ultimate guide to that path must therefore be more complex than an arrow pointing confidently in one direction. (Lindauer and Pritchett 2002: 28) It is important to get the approach to the inception of modern economic development right. Eric Jones (2006: 37) has argued that, whereas by the principle of Ockham’s razor we should in any explanation avoid redundancy1, economic development is a complex phenomenon and this complexity cannot be ignored. Since the process is a complex one, any explanation is itself likely to be complex. This book is an exploration of that complexity. Experience shows that narrow explanations of modern economic development, in particular mono-causal explanations, are inadequate in identifying the determinants of that development. The first section of this chapter explores what is meant by modern economic development. In the second section there is a discussion of the various ways in which the challenge of explaining economic development has been met. The third section considers the three inputs required for a successful approach – narratives, theory and data, and introduces the comparative approach. The final section presents the problem as a ‘mystery’, rather than a ‘puzzle’. It indicates the nature of the questions to be addressed. The chapter concludes with a review of the content of the book. THE CHALLENGE The most important problems confronting the world today are a significant lack of economic development and the poverty associated with that lack. In comparison with such problems, the difficulties of...

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