Historian Stephen Macekura came up with a name for the 20th century. What will he call the 21st?
“We often think of the 20th century in terms of what divided the world,” says Stephen Macekura, a historian who is an assistant professor at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. “For example, part of the world was Communist; part of the world was capitalist.”
He and Harvard University historian Erez Manela have recently collaborated on a book that proposes a new, unifying name for the 20th century: The Development Century. Published by Cambridge University Press, the book examines how “the notion of progress and linear development became a core goal of states, be they liberal or conservative, Communist, capitalist or Fascist,” Macekura explains.
Macekura and Manela point out in their introduction that the idea of helping other nations to develop “has long been the rage in the global arena.” In fact, “official assistance alone—not including philanthropic or private investment—amounted to $132 billion in 2015.”
Despite the grand sums spent on many grandly conceived programs, the two historians say, the actual process of carrying them out has been “contingent, messy, and often contested.” And “the very meaning of development has never been fixed or stable for very long.”
Thus, their book contains essays by 14 other historians who look at development at many levels (national, regional, international) and from many angles to try to answer such questions as how empire-building (and, later, decolonization) and the Cold War affected the course of development programs.
Macekura says that he and Manela looked for essays from historians who, no matter their methodology or perspective, “write about development beyond narratives of success or failure. It can be easy to dismiss all interventions as imperialism in disguise that come with unintended negative consequences, especially environmental ones.”
Having settled on a label for the 20th century, what does Macekura think the 21st century will be called?
“The 21st century in many ways will be a reckoning with the consequences of development—the most obvious being climate change,” Macekura predicts. “I also very much hope that in the 21st century, we come up with a richer meaning for ‘development.’ Perhaps we’ll say that a developed country isn’t simply the one with the highest GDP, but the one with the most inclusive society, or the one that does the most to ensure social well-being or equal opportunity.”