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Technology history don’t lie

Yours truly has a crazy new article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy on why no-tech ancient civilizations still can’t catch up, based on my published research with Diego Comin and Erick Gong. But all is not doom and gloom, you just have to learn the right lessons from technology history:

As China’s history has shown, when governments stop killing innovation, good things happen. Technological change has also dramatically speeded up, and lower communication and transportation costs make it cheaper and easier to borrow advanced technologies from other countries — allowing societies to leap forward….The explosive growth in cell phones in Africa, skipping the intermediate step of land lines, is a promising sign of what Africa’s tech future could look like — if it weren’t for its plague of poor governments.

Former World Bank chief economist Stanley Fischer used to joke about a new grammatical tense he called the “World Bank imperative form”: Country reports were long lists of things that “must be done” by the authorities, ranging from grandiose infrastructure projects to implementing detailed plans to meet health, nutrition, sanitation, and education needs.

But our research shows that development is not about what you dictate, but what you discover. Little penicillin did far more to improve the world’s lot than big plans conceived around a conference table.

…If there’s anything that “must be done” to spur future development, it’s to create the conditions necessary to empower the ordinary individuals who will create new and unforeseen technologies out of old ones. There’s a Thomas Edison born every minute. We just have to help them turn the lights on.

Read the whole article here.

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9 Comments

  1. Sean wrote:

    As China’s history has shown, when governments stop killing innovation, good things happen… allowing societies to leap forward

    I assume that the word choice here is intentional, and definitely adds some bite to the paper.

    Posted October 13, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Rebecca Burlingame wrote:

    Forget the grand walls of buildings and fancy infrastructure, that only keep knowledge locked in. Let the citizens learn from doctors and health practitioners so they can practice healthcare in the structures they already have.

    Posted October 13, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  3. Boni Karanja wrote:

    Yes the governments of Africa have failed to empower the ordinary.Sometimes the genius misses the opportunities. Just because of oversight…are the government.World bank could more focus to the ordinary citizens.

    Posted October 13, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  4. joe wrote:

    Erm.. isn’t that just saying that those cultures with big enough navies in 1500 to begin colonising gained most by the 21 century?

    Posted October 13, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink
  5. William Easterly wrote:

    Joe, the economic historians’ calculation is that colonialism contributed very little to the development of rich nations. (classic article by Stan Engermann). For example, Portugal and Spain were the biggest and earliest colonizers, and look how much good it did them.

    Posted October 13, 2010 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  6. Jim wrote:

    It really is a bit of stretch to take a paper that shows persistence of levels of technological development over hundreds of years and conclude from it that slow technology growth is all down to bad government. Such persistence surely suggests an important role for longer-term factors. Indeed, your paper does identify geography as important, an apparently inconvenient finding which you have since chosen to downplay or ignore.

    Posted October 14, 2010 at 3:37 am | Permalink
  7. Tom D wrote:

    Hi William,

    Can you remember the name of the Engermann article? I am keen to read it, as my understanding was that colonialism was geographically varied, and varied over time – so it was not possible to assert that colonisation did not benefit the colonisers development?

    Thanks

    Tom

    Posted October 14, 2010 at 7:23 am | Permalink
  8. Joy wrote:

    Nice article. Does the national state of intellectual property protection affect the ability of entrepreneurs within the country to make innovations that specifically address their unique problems?

    Posted October 14, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Permalink
  9. Rebecca wrote:

    “no-tech ancient civilizations”, really? Really? I truly hope you are referring to cultures of the past and not current populations with this statement, as I couldn’t open your article from where I am to verify.
    A modern population, even though it may not have all the technologies of the “west” is not “ancient”.

    Posted October 15, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by William Easterly, Trey, Jimmy Kainja, Morgan Hartley, Eric Mtika and others. Eric Mtika said: RT @bill_easterly: Development is not dictated, it's discovered: lessons of technology history @FP_Magazine http://bit.ly/9iwQaO [...]

  2. By Technology By Day » Technology history don't lie on October 13, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    [...] post: Technology history don't lie Tags: conditions, conditions-necessary, create-new, create-the-conditions, empower-the-ordinary, [...]

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