May-June 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 5

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ASA Forum for Public Discussion and Debate

Needed: A codified socio-economic theory of development

If you read books such as Bad Days in Basra, Life in the Imperial City, or Winter in Kabul, you will be struck by the lack of a coherent body of knowledge on how to "reconstruct" a nation. You may share my strong sense that the United States and other Western powers should not have interfered by the use of force in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place, but you may still agree that if foreign powers are to assist with economic development in these nations, their efforts should be guided by an empirically valid, robust conception of deliberate social change. They presently are not. True, this is in part due to greedy contractors, laws that require that large chunks of American aid be spent by American companies, the fact that most Americans in these countries do not speak the local languages and have no clue about their cultures, and so on. But it is also true that those in charge are not guided by a solid understanding of what must be done and how it can be done.

The challenge is not limited to Iraq and Afghanistan. An extended review of the World Bank efforts over the last decades shows how little good it did.¹ The nations that received most of the aid (especially in Africa) developed least, while the nations that received very little aid grew very fast (especially China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan).

One may say that providing a robust guidance to development is the job of economists. However, obviously numerous social, cultural, and political factors play a key role in development—and in preventing it from taking off. The World Bank’s economists, for instance, only recently discovered that gross corruption and poor governance are major factors in hindering development. Economists are not particularly well-equipped to indicate how these factors may be turned about.

My fellow sociologists have much to give here. However, for their work to be as helpful as it ought to be, some codification of the myriad findings and insights of individual scholars is needed. This could be helped if the ASA would consider sponsoring another one of its masterful review volumes, as long as it was formed to help policymakers and citizens—rather than to speak only to fellow sociologists. Or, the ASA may consider forming a development codification standing workshop that will publish occasional papers. Surely other ways can be found. These lines are merely meant to try to open a dialogue on what needs to be done and how it might be done—to be of service to countries that call out for help. logo_small

Amitai Etzioni, George Washington University

1 Knack, Stephen. 2004. "Aid Dependence and the Quality of Governance: Cross Country Empirical Tests," Southern Economic Journal, 68(2):310-329. See also: Easterly, William. 2006. The White Man’s Burden, New York, NY: The Penguin Press.


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