Category Archives: Historiography

Of Good and Better Companies: Reflections On Agency and Economic History

In Good Company: About Agency and Economic Development in Global Perspective
Jan Luiten van Zanden ( University of Utrecht (The Netherlands) and Stellenbosch University (South Africa).
Abstract: The paper discusses some evidence, based on a review of new literature on economic history, about what is referred to as the Sen-hypothesis, that increasing human agency (of both men and women) is a key factor in economic development. It briefly discusses various dimensions of agency (or its absence): slavery (as the absolute suppression of human agency), access to markets, agency concerning marriage, and political participation. This concept perhaps also allows economic historians to move beyond the historical determinism that is central to much recent work in this field.
“Economic history is very trendy these days” (Zanden 2011: 3)

J. L. van Zanden

This paper distributed by NEP-HIS on 2012-01-03 raises a challenge to economic historians: how can we improve our current explanations of differential development and escape the common rhetorical places of path dependency and institutional persistence in our explanations of material stagnation and change? By placing human agency of men and women in the center of our stories, says Jan Luiten van Zanden, in the form advocated years ago by Amartya Sen in his best-selling book Development as Freedom.

Amartya Sen

It might be useful to remember Sen’s definition of agency, a concept that diverged from the usual meaning of the term in economics:

The use of the term “agency” calls for a little clarification. The expression “agent” is sometimes employed in the literature of economics and game theory to denote a person who is acting on someone else’s behalf (perhaps being led on by a “principal” and whose achievements are to be assessed in the light of someone else’s (the principal’s) goals. I am using the term “agent” not in this sense, but in its older -and “grander”- sense as someone who acts and brings about change, and whose achievements can be judged in terms of her own values and objectives, whether or not we assess them in terms of some external criteria as well. This work is particularly concerned with the agency role of the individual as a member of the public and as a participant in economic, social and political actions (varying from taking part in the market to being involved, directly or indirectly, in individual or joint activities in political and other spheres) (Sen 1999: 18-19, my own emphasis added).

Zanden’s reading of agency in Sen is “the capacity for autonomous decision making” that ultimately drives “economic and social-political change” (Zanden 2011: 4). Agency is also a synonym of “participation, or autonomy” (Zanden 2011: 5). But two questions remain. How does agency affect economic change? How does freedom impact agency? Sen responds:

Development as Freedom

Expansion of freedom is viewed both as the primary end and as the principal means of development. Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. The removal of substantial unfreedoms is constitutive of development (Sen 1999: xii).

Zanden advances the usefulness of Sen’s framework and formulates what he calls the dual Sen hypothesis, this is, if “development is defined as freedom [… that] freedom -or rather -agency- is an important precondition and driver of long-term economic and socio-political change” (Zanden 2011: 5).

The second part of the “Sen hypothesis”, agency as a determinant of historical change, can be tested with proxy variables such as the gross domestic product or the human development index. However, what is behind these indicators? Zanden advances a suggestive explanation drawn from the new growth theory of Paul Romer and Robert Lucas: human capital is the crucial determinant of economic growth and human development. Human capital is embedded in the other variables for “one has to possess the right skills -the human capital- to really participate in markets, political events and the civil society” (Zanden 2011:5).

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Multinational Strategies and Developing Countries in Historical Perspective

By: Geoffrey Jones (Harvard Business School, Entrepreneurial Management Unit)

This working paper offers a longitudinal and descriptive analysis of the strategies of multinationals from developed countries in developing countries. The central argument is that strategies were shaped by the trade-off between opportunity and risk. Three broad environmental factors determined the trade-off. The first was the prevailing political economy, including the policies of both host and home governments, and the international legal framework. The second was the market and resources of the host country. The third factor was competition from local firms. The impact of these factors on corporate strategies is explored, as shown in Fig. 1, during the three eras in the modern history of globalization from the nineteenth century until the present day. The performance of specific multinationals depended on the extent to which their internal capabilities enabled them to respond to these external opportunities and threats.

International Business and the study of Multinational Corporations is perceived as one of the areas where business historians have made significant contributions. Indeed, the late John Dunning, one of the major contributors to the area, was supportive of using longitudinal and multi-sourced approach to better understand the motivations to pursue foreign owned, value adding activities by firms (or groups of firms). Geoff Jones has also made important contributions to the area as well as documenting the role of entrepreneurs in Latin America. This piece is interesting and welcomed as a way to bring both strands together, although more could be done to portray the issue from the view point of host economies.

South African Agricultural Research and Development: A Century of Change

By: Liebenberg, Frikki, Pardey, Philip G. and Kahn, Michael

The 20th Century saw substantive shifts in the structure of agriculture and agricultural production in South Africa. Farm size grew, farm numbers eventually declined, and production increasingly emphasized higher-valued commodities, notably a range of horticultural crops. The real gross value of agricultural output grew steadily (by 3.32 percent per year) from 1910-1981, but declined thereafter (by 0.21 percent per year from 1982-2008). These long-run sectoral changes provide a context to present and assess an entirely new data series on public agricultural R&D (and related regulatory and extension) spending and associated scientist trends. South African agricultural R&D has been affected by a series of major policy changes. These are also documented and discussed here, along with the associated institutional changes regarding the conduct and funding of public agricultural R&D in South Africa. We reveal a number of disturbing trends, including an effective flat lining of the long-run growth in total agricultural R&D spending that took hold in the 1970s, an erratic path of funding per scientist, and a loss of scientific personnel in recent decades. Moreover, South Africa has lost ground relative to its competitors in international commodity markets such as the United States and Australia in terms of the intensity of investment in agricultural R&D. These developments are likely to have long-term, and detrimental, consequences for the productivity performance and competiveness of South African agriculture. They deserve serious policy attention as the 21st Century unfolds, with a firm eye to the long-run given the long lags (often many decades) that typify the relationship between agricultural R&D spending and productivity growth.

This paper highlights the importance of research into business and economic history outside of “Triad” countries (that is, the USA, Western Europe and Japan). More to the point, the need to rescue data relevant for economic management in sub-Sahara Africa (such as the South African export-led fruit, wine, and sugar industries which, the authors tell us, have kept a positive trade balance since 1910). This paper thus offers a first interpretation of a newly constructed long term series of South African agricultural data while focusing on productivity gains from agricultural R&D (in their science policy context).

A very rich and detailed study indeed. Although it would have been interesting to learn more about the changing nature of agricultural organisations themselves (and particularly the influence of say legacy institutions from the British empire to foster entrepreneurship and trade patterns), this paper is certainly worth a read.

Financial crises and financial reforms in Spain: What have we learned?

By Pablo Martín-Aceña, Ángeles Pons & Concepción Beltrán


Like the rest of the world, Spain has suffered frequent financial crises and undergone several changes in its regulatory framework. There have been crises that have been followed by reforms of the financial structure, and also troubled financial times with no modification of the regulatory and supervisory regime. In various instances, regulatory changes have predated financial crises, but in others banking crises have occurred without reference to changes in the regulatory regime. Regulation and supervision has been usually absent in the XIXth century, while in the XXth century policy makers have been more active and diligent. Moreover, all major financial crises have been followed by intense financial restructuring, although as elsewhere banking restructuring and interventions not always have been successful (in fact, the cases of failures and mixed results overcome the successful cases). The paper provides a short history of the major financial crises in Spain from 1856 to the present, and also reviews the main financial reforms and the distinctive regulatory regimes that have been in place in this last 150 years time span.

This paper is representative of a series of recent contributions in a number of ways: first, the financial crisis of 2007-9 has opened opportunities to highlight the role of historians to help formulate public policy. Second, there is more to the financial crisis than events around 1929 and the so-called “Atlantic continuity”. As the authors argue, there are lessons to be learn even from economies in the “periphery” such as Spain (which even at times of  “isolation” it has seen drops in real income and industrial production as a result of international events). Third, I think the authors summarize the crux of the discussion here:

But can we really prevent financial crises? Can we design a potent regulatory framework capable to assure the stability of the financial system against all kind ofeconomic events?