Today, development economics occupies a central place in the teaching of economics in many universities, and indeed, as Thirlwall (1994) puts it quite succinctly, no self-respecting faculty of economics is without a development economics program.
Development economics has become an independent and influential profession in academia and policy-making.
It has developed its own corpus of theories, methodologies and analytical instruments.
It is no exaggeration to say that very few professions have achieved in such a short time the theoretical rigor, methodological identity and maturity of development economics.
Despite the rapid pace of development as an independent profession, development economics is a very recent phenomenon, especially compared to traditional professions such as political science (including political economy), philosophy, law , sociology or even traditional economics.
Less than three decades ago, development economics was a little-known field struggling to break away from the bastion of mainstream economics.
Consequently, very few professional economists were willing to venture into this uncharted territory and question the theories they had held to throughout their professional lives.
The dissatisfaction was therefore left to young economists – mostly developing countries who felt that traditional economic theory was less relevant to their countries’ conditions and problems.
They argue for a fundamental overhaul of consumer and economics methodologies as they are applied to the problems facing developing countries.
The rise of development economics
It is important to note that new professions are not born in a vacuum or the result of a far-sighted genius preoccupied with societal issues at some future time.
New professions are the product of particular social formations and emerge in response to challenges enhanced by these social arrangements in various aspects of society.
The new problems facing society in a given age are becoming increasingly difficult to grasp – let alone solve with the help of old forms of knowledge.
These problems call for new approaches and analytical instruments; they call for new methodologies and a whole new way of apprehending social phenomena – a way fundamentally different from the old and in harmony with the new problems.
A few examples of factors that necessitated the emergence of certain social science professions may help to clarify this point.
In the emergence of classical economics in the 17th century, Europe was not a historical accident brought about by the “great sages”.
It was a direct response to the understanding of the new problems imposed on society by the industrial revolution, in particular the relations of sharing goods and services.
Production shifted from the family backyard to the factory, and responsibility for management shifted from family members to a class of professional managers – unrelated to the owner.
Classical economics then emerged in response to these problems and challenges of the Industrial Revolution.
From the classical economists of the industrial revolution emerged market theories such as the theory of the firm, the theory of the consumer and the famous law of supply and demand to which modern economics is so indebted.
Thus, the modern economy developed as a result of a new social organization that presented different problems from the past and called for a complete transformation of inherited knowledge.
The emergence of development economics must therefore be placed in the context of a new social phenomenon, which poses problems and challenges – unlike the past.
The independence of the former colonies brought with it a new multitude of new problems and challenges.
The main problems and challenges of the new states were how to eradicate poverty and economic backwardness and accelerate the process of development.
The resolution of these challenges has been sought in the economic sphere.
However, despite the consistent application of traditional economic theory, progress in developing countries has been minimal at best.
The gap between the growth of industrial countries and that of developing countries has never been questioned.
In the early 1960s, Dudley Steers observed that the economy seemed very slow to adjust to the demands of the main task of the day – the eradication of acute poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The fundamental questions were why these economies were not developing and what governments in developing countries should do to accelerate the pace of development.
Solving these problems required a fundamental change that went to the very essence of traditional economic theory.
All of traditional economic theory had to be revisited, and economists had to change their attitudes and approaches to the issue of economic problems in developing countries.
Dudley Steers (1967) correctly observed that ‘the challenge (of development in developing countries) required not only a change of attitude of economists, but a fundamental change of theory’.
The field of development economics emerged in response to the challenge of the development process in developing countries.
It provided alternative responses and methodologies to traditional economics, which were contextualized within the socio-economic conditions of developing countries.