The past 25 years
While few people doubt that social factors condition the application of science and technology to development, some may doubt that the social sciences can improve the prospects for such applications. The natural sciences advance by discovering new, simplifying explanations for things, but progress in the social sciences is often marked by the introduction of increasing complexities.
With these opening comments, Dr. John D. Montgomery, Ford Foundation Professor of International Studies at Harvard University, set the scene for his presentation on the contributions of the social sciences to development over the past 25 years. He prefaced his description of these successes with mention of two kinds of disappointments - intellectual and operational - suffered by social scientists in the recent past.
The intellectual disappointments have been caused by hubris or intellectual arrogance. For example, costly, but in the end ineffective, mathematical models were developed for such operational decisions as agricultural policies. Twenty-five years ago econometricians were eager to test their theories, especially by applying their techniques to current policy, and many saw the Third World as the natural laboratory for these efforts. The models, which generated elegant, logical, and consistent information, were then printed out in computer centers, but in the end they were not of great use to decision makers.
The second kind of disappointment - related to the acceptability of' social science as a source of policy - usually arises when decision' makers decline to apply existing knowledge, even when it is useful. For example, it has been known for years, through successful pilot projects in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, that radio and television can augment learning in primary schools, and even replace teachers in areas where they are unavailable. Social scientists, however, have found it difficult to convince policymakers to move from pilot demonstrations of the teaching effectiveness of communications media to a nation's classrooms. The reasons for these operational disappointments are only now becoming apparent, and they are adding to social scientists' knowledge about government.
"In the light of experience, we have to admit that sometimes, at least, the politicians have shown that they knew more about government than the political economists did," observed Montgomery. For example, national leaders were justifiably skeptical about centralized planning. "Their skepticism may have arisen as much out of the struggle for power as out of technical weaknesses, but that struggle turned out to be more important than the technical weaknesses were." Consistent planning cannot do much for governments that are effectively unable to execute any policies at all. But, while such unexecuted plans may not have hastened the course of development, they have sometimes called political attention to areas where government action was needed, such as correction of failures in the market system, where relations between governments and markets are always troublesome.
Montgomery then described four areas in which social scientists can point to triumphs over the past 25 years: (1) building an infrastructure of social science information, (2) understanding the nature of growth, (3) creating theories about achieving equity, and (4) increasing knowledge about the politics and political culture of development.
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