In the summer of 1931, after months of anomalous heavy rains, several of China’s largest rivers overflowed their banks, flooding nearly 70,000 square miles of farmland and killing, on some estimates, up to 4 million people. These floods—one of the worst natural disasters in human history—came at a moment of major political instability in China, as the new nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek was struggling to consolidate its rule after years of civil war. In September 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria. Adding to the challenges of national unification and defense was a humanitarian crisis on a monumental scale: the millions of Chinese who had been displaced by the floods now faced starvation and disease. As harvests failed, reports of cannibalism abounded. Dikes had to be rebuilt quickly to prevent high waters from causing further devastation.
Desperate Chinese officials looked outward for help: foreign experts and civil servants—many of whom had been sent to China by the League of Nations—were placed into powerful positions in the Nanjing government to oversee relief and reconstruction and to centralize the state’s control over China’s water infrastructure. Responsibility for emergency aid and water management, traditionally the tasks of local elites, was placed firmly into the hands of the state. As the leading Chinese economist H.D. Fong wrote in 1936, the floods marked an important milestone in the state’s quest for “economic control” of China. Soon, the nationalist regime was working in close cooperation with many different experts from the League of Nations, who provided the technical know-how and training—and sometimes the funds—to realize the Guomindang’s ambitious plans for China’s infrastructural and economic development. By the time Nanjing was captured by the Japanese in 1937, plans to build a completely new China—dammed, electrified, and crisscrossed with highways and railroads—were underway. It was the first time an international organization, the League of Nations, had overseen the economic development of a sovereign state.
In just a few years, this practice would become commonplace. Since the end of World War II, an array of international bodies, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and others, acting with the backing of powerful states, have attempted to improve the economic lot of the world’s poorer countries by developing their industries and physical infrastructure, or by providing them with loans and the services of experts. After 1945, as the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote, “no economic subject more quickly captured the attention of so many as the rescue of the people of the poor countries from their poverty.”
After decades of experience, however, there’s still little agreement about how development should be done—and whether it solves more problems than it creates. Different approaches fall in and out of fashion quickly. The consensus of the 1990s and early 2000s—that growth in the global South would follow shortly on the heels of IMF- and World Bank-led market reforms—has been shattered. The Millennium Development Goals, to halve global poverty by 2015, inspire far less confidence today than when they appeared in 2000. The development community has lowered its expectations, and its search for workable solutions has taken an experimental turn. Borrowing a technique from medical research, many development economists now conduct randomized controlled trials on population groups to see whether their small-scale technical interventions—giving out free mosquito nets, for example, or providing microfinance loans—actually have any impact. The assumption behind this technique—that the results gained from an experiment in one setting are generalizable to another—is fiercely contested. But the current vogue for the experimental approach speaks to the problem at the heart of development: there are simply few successful models to follow.