From this "Letter from India" commentary posted at the New York Times, writer Akash Kapur tries to explain the mystery.
For all its temptations, however, the search for a policy toolkit toward development is fraught with pitfalls. Over the last 60 years or so, the international development community has come up with model after model, theory after theory, in search of just such a toolkit.
It has, at various times, promoted the benefits of huge, often conditional, inputs of foreign aid, the rigors of shock therapy, the virtues of free trade and the promise of the Washington Consensus (a set of policies prescribed and often imposed by agencies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Treasury).
Yet for all the efforts to come up with a general theory of development, the truth is that economic growth remains something of a mystery. This is the conclusion of a recent anthology, “What Works in Development?”, published by the Brookings Institution. The essays lead to the conclusion that there is no clear way to ease poverty, and — as the editors, William Easterly and Jessica Cohen, state in their introduction — “no consensus on ‘what works’ for growth and development.”
Mr. Easterly, a former World Bank economist, has elsewhere shown that there is little correspondence between a nation’s economic growth and the extent to which it follows international development prescriptions. Analyzing data for 1980 to 2002, he found that countries that grew the fastest received considerably less foreign aid and spent less time under I.M.F. tutelage than those that grew the slowest. This doesn’t mean that following the orthodoxy harms development, but it does suggest that rapid growth is possible without international aid or advice.
Part of the problem, it turns out, may be the very attempt to follow a model. Progress — economic or otherwise — is a notoriously subjective phenomenon. It is context sensitive, and highly dependent on local conditions. It is, in particular, resistant to the uniformity implicit in even the most sophisticated models.
This view, once held by a fringe, is entering the mainstream. It was given voice last month by none other than Robert B. Zoellick, president of the World Bank, when he spoke of the need for “rethinking” development economics and “a questioning of prevailing paradigms.”