Development practitioners who are deeply committed to meeting the needs of ordinary citizens around the world stand to gain much from a historical view of their work. Historical perspectives shed new light on how the oft ignored past ultimately creates the spaces and places that practitioners now work in. These spaces and places (i.e. contexts) clearly constrain or enable development work in diverse and contingent ways. Along with their unintended consequences and outcomes, historical constraints and enablers remain largely unrecognized by those who design and practice development.

Understanding human and ecological adaptation and the role of uncertainty form the staple diet of intellectual work undertaken by historians. Historians (who examine the past) share with policy makers (who seek to determine the future) a concern for complexity and uncertainty. In that context, some development practitioners have begun looking at broadening traditionally held views of political economy for a greater emphasis on insights from the field of history. There seems to be a ‘historical turn’ taking place in writings on development especially when it comes to understanding the institutional characteristics of societies that might promote or hinder economic, social, and political development. This paper will reflect upon how the work of historians can provide lessons for development practitioners on how to be more critical of their own starting points, assumptions, and expectations.

Key Messages

This paper emphasises the need to look back at history while looking forward: it demonstrates a link between looking back, storytelling and policymaking for development. Historians are storytellers, Professor Michael argues, and they have much to gain from engaging with development programming and policymakers. As he writes" Since historians are storytellers, they can craft new “true stories” of social change that are not deterministic but faithfully represent the human condition. Such storytelling might have a limited commitment to linear development and more willing to consider the complex and contingent ways in which development narratives unfold. Policy makers who tell stories about, for instance, social protection, health & education, and natural resource management may benefit from the work of historians to become more critical of their own “starting points, assumptions, and expectations.”

A reflective piece, Professor Michael also discusses how a historian's perspective can contribute to social justice in higher education. His paper takes a moment to discuss how, in a previous role in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at a university, a historian's ability to think flexibly, working ethnographically, and be sensitive to context, process, time and space was of immense utility to enhance desegregation, and promote co-operation.