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Progress, Poverty and Exclusion: An Economic History of Latin America in the 20th Century

Author(s):Thorp, Rosemary
Reviewer(s):Taylor, Alan M.

Published by EH.NET (August 1999)

Rosemary Thorp, Progress, Poverty and Exclusion: An Economic History of

Latin America in the 20th Century. Washington D.C.: Inter-American

Development Bank, 1998. xiii + 369 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN: 1-886938-35-0

Reviewed for EH.NET by Alan M. Taylor, Department of Economics, University of

California at Davis.

A book that aims to survey the entire twentieth-century economic history of

Latin America is indeed a massive endeavor. In pursuing such a goal Rosemary

Thorp wisely assembled a large and talented team to help her. As her

acknowledgements make clear, without this team approach the book would not have

happened, since such an undertaking would be an almost prohibitively time

consuming effort for a scholar working alone, requiring many years of work to

cover the several countries, varieties of experience,

and the range of economic analysis–from macro to micro, intern al and

external, short and long run, and so on. Thorp was fortunate to secure

considerable logistical and resource support from the Inter-American

Development Bank for this worthy project. From that starting point she was able

to commission a group of scholar-consultants, each expert in different topics

or knowledgeable about particular countries, and from their background papers

and supporting work she sought to weave an overarching narrative. In this

aspect, the project’s design is reminiscent of, say,

the annual World Bank reports, where commissioned background work is blended

into the final product.

Beyond their acknowledgement in this book, some of the supporting actors also

get an opportunity to have their full say in a series of three

“companion volumes” published by Macmillan Press and St. Antony’s College,

Oxford, the latter being Thorp’s home base. It seems unfair to review the main

book that builds so heavily on this supporting material without giving a brief

plug for the entire cast. The titles of the three supporting volumes are:

The Export Age: Latin American Economies in the Late Nineteenth and Early

Twentieth Centuries (edited by Cardenas, Ocampo and Thorp); Latin

America in the 1930s (edited by Thorp, a second edition of her 1984

volume); and Industrialization and the State in Latin America:

The Black Legend of the Post War Years (edited by Cardenas, Ocampo and

Thorp). All three will also appear in Spanish translation published by Fondo de

Cultura Economica.

These three background

volumes–which were unfortunately not available to this reviewer–provide the

foundations for the main text. This design should prove helpful in expanding

access to the subject. Those new to the subject or those seeking a quick

overview can peruse the ma in volume. The very curious, the specialists, and

the pedants can delve in the background studies. Bundling the background papers

together in this way follows another design style that has been applied to the

history of the region –I am thinking here of

the Cambridge History of Latin America, edited by Bethell (who is also

an author in this project.)

Thus, by careful design and packaging, Thorp, the IDB, and the supporting cast

have delivered a set of diverse and complementary products that arrive in

what can only be described as a gaping hole in the marketplace. The project

might, even then, be somewhat ahead of its time. A thorough economic history of

Latin America in the twentieth century is a major task whose completion will

depend on the complete

assessment of the empirical record of development in each country. In turn,

that task will require basic data and archival work in each country to actually

construct the empirical record itself, since in many places the holes in our

knowledge are deep and the fragmentary and frail nature of the data sources

still troubling. Finally, once good data are in hand, the evaluation of the

historical record will call for the application of modern quantitative

econometric methods, insights from economic theory, and cutting-edge

institutional analysis.

Those working in Latin American economic history know that progress in all

these dimensions is uneven, varying by country, time period, and the particular

area of study. Such caveats should be borne in mind, especially since current

research on the New Economic History of Latin America is being produced at a

fast rate by an ever-growing group of scholars and their findings are

challenging many interpretations.

A serious criticism I have concerns access to the data

for the study. This is the first such long-run database of its kind, and its

construction was overseen by someone with impeccable credentials: Andre Hofman


(CEPAL), formerly of the Groningen group, who is personally responsible for

recent pioneering estimates of GDP and capital stocks in the major economies

of the region. Notwithstanding the preceding caveats about the quality and

comprehensiveness of historical data in the region, the data specialists for

this project distinguished themselves and did us all a great service by

piecing together so many series and benchmarks in a series of comparative data

tables for so many countries. The statistical appendix is massive and will be

the kind of data mine that future researchers will want to dig around in. Too

bad, then, that the proposed fourth companion volume which would have presented

the full database and sources has been abandoned. Still worse, an even more

efficient and simple solution to the problem of how to disseminate this data

and facilitate its use has also been ignored thus far–namely, putting it all

up on a website. I think this is a great shame. At a cost of only a small

fraction of the resources devoted to this project by the IDB (and the European

Union and others) I guess that it

would take competent web specialists only a few hours to clean and upload these

files onto a server. Then we could all enjoy the use of the data and the

project would deliver even greater benefits to the academic community. I hope

Thorp, Hofman, the IDB,

or some other folks can work out a way to do this soon.

If I have any other quibbles, they are more minor. Of course, a survey volume

can only scratch the surface and at certain points one would wish for more. Yet

I cannot help but feel that in certain places the book gets a little off track

and the use of space might have been more productive. The problem is evident to

me even in the title. Why not just Progress and Poverty? The final tag

“exclusion” is hinted at in various places, but I am still not

sure that the topic was either as fully worked out as it should be, nor whether

it is a topic best left to other studies, being too far outside the scope of

the present work. The issue is methodological. The introduction concludes on an

almost apologetic

note that statistical categorization and analysis might obfuscate the

importance of “ordinary people” for the nonspecialist reader, but then stoutly

defends our turf in noting that economic history cannot be told via “individual

cases.” Still,

having made

the argument for economic historical methodology, the author thinks it

necessary to switch at times to a historian’s methodology and include a handful

of two-page narrative “boxes” where stories of particular people are told (a

poor woman from rural Peru, an Argentine scientist –a range of experience). I

don’t question the importance of historical methodology in general, nor

case-study history in particular, but I do wonder what it adds here to what, on

most every other page, is by and large a macroeconomic history. The

conjunction of the two methodologies adds another layer of complexity to the

study. There is already so much else for the reader to follow in dimensions

temporal, spatial, in economic categories and concepts, and so on. In other


, there are brief paragraphs or sections touching on the “exclusion” theme–the

power of elites or the position of women–but these also appear to be an


and do not fit in smoothly with the analytic content of the narrative and its

main thrust.

I do not mean to say that “exclusion” isn’t an important issue in Latin

America–in history or today–but only to question how well it fits into the

scheme of this book.

Having quibbled with some aspects of the project, let me still affirm that it

is a welcome addition to the bookshelf. As a reference work, this book and its

companion volumes will be some of the first places many of us go to seek an

answer to a question outside our particular specialization or country of

interest. If one needs to get the

basic facts straight concerning rates of economic growth, investment, the

pattern of trade, and other macroeconomic features of development, the many

statistical tables and (very-elegantly executed) figures will prove invaluable.

For an introductory account that signposts events during pivotal

episodes–such as the Great Depression, the import-substitution era, the debt

crisis, and the recent reform phase–the main text will serve as a good guide.

For some in-depth accounts by leading scholars on what they think is the

state-of-the-art in the field, the companion volumes–though I have not yet

seen them–have the potential to be very useful. In short, an ambitious

project, a productive outcome.

Alan M. Taylor is co-editor (with John H. Coatsworth) of

Latin America and the World Economy Since 1800 (Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 1999).

His latest published article (with Gerardo della Paolera) is “Economic Recovery

from the Argentine Great Depression: Institutions, Expectations,

and the Change of

Macroeconomic Regime” (Journal of Economic History 59,

no. 3, September 1999, forthcoming).

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):General or Comparative