Economic Growth’s Many Recipes

CAMBRIDGE, MA. -- Development “big think” has always been dominated by comprehensive visions about transforming poor societies. From the so-called “Big Push” to “Balanced Growth,” from the “Washington Consensus” to “Second Generation Reforms,” the emphasis has been on wholesale change.

Today’s fashion in development is no different. The prevailing obsession with the “governance” agenda entails a broad-based effort to remold institutions in developing societies as a prerequisite for economic growth. The United Nations Millennium Project involves a large-scale, coordinated big push of investment in human capital, public infrastructure, and agricultural technologies.

But there have also been iconoclastic dissenters from such comprehensive approaches, among whom Albert Hirschman was without doubt the most distinguished. Indeed, Hirschman’s seminal contributions have now been recognized by the United States Social Science Research Council, which this year established a prize in his honor.

Hirschman’s interests shifted away from economic development over the course of his illustrious career. But when he was still involved in development debates, he would frequently remind his contemporaries that any country that had the capacity to undertake comprehensive programs would not be underdeveloped to begin with.