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Raúl Prebisch and the challenges of development of the XXI century


The ideas of Prebisch, and those of ECLAC generally, have represented part of a broad spectrum of currents of thought in which it has been recognized that the challenges of development depend on the way in which economic, social and political relations are structured in different societies which, in turn, are members of a hierarchical and unequal global system.

The starting point for the historical-structural method is the notion that less developed countries and developed countries are confronted with qualitatively different problems and that the formulation of policies and the strengthening of State capacities are key determinants for the ability of the less advanced countries to transform themselves and achieve higher levels of development.

Prebisch and the historical-structural method

Structure and social science as a method for understanding reality

The historical-structural method highlights the importance of the historical context for understanding how the economy and society work. In this framework, it is argued that while economic and social science must strive to establish general laws, it must also be recognized that a general theory has great shortcomings for explaining historical circumstances that are undergoing constant change. Because economics is a social science and because economic and social structures are so variable, there is scant possibility of developing theories that are valid for every time and place.

On the other hand, the method takes an approach close to what could be identified as classical political economy, a context in which social and political aspects play a determining role in the functioning of the economy, leading to approaches that today would be called interdisciplinary. Moreover, the historical-structural method starts with the idea that researchers themselves are social beings who in their attempt to analyse their reality are saddled by their own subjectivity, a situation that demands a special effort at critical analysis.

Structure in the global economic system: hierarchies and interdependencies

The historical-structural method highlights, on the one hand, the importance of economic and social structures and the existence of economic and social systems with differentiated hierarchies and functions. It also holds that the process of economic and social development consists of a set of structural changes and that it can be frustrated if it cannot transform structures, even when there is a process of accumulation of productive factors.

Prebisch and ECLAC addressed a privileged type of structure, the international economy, characterized by relations between centre and periphery, with different roles, levels of development, and social, economic and cultural configurations. This is not just a matter of discovering the differences between two types of economies, but rather of seeing them as part of an interdependent whole that has its own dynamics.

The emphasis on international structures in no way downplays the study and consideration of national structures. Consequently, Prebisch and ECLAC have analysed the agrarian structure, the makeup of the domestic productive framework, the particular forms of factor and product markets, the capacities of government and its bureaucracy, and demographic structures, among many other aspects.

Application of the historical-structural method to present-day reality

In assessing Prebisch's life and ideas it is essential to remain faithful to the same method. His ideas and works must be situated in their context, and it is important to understand the most persistent components of his thinking as well as the changes they underwent.

These can be seen as reflections of changes of context, but also as a more intrinsically scientific expression born of the process of accumulating knowledge and learning. In any case, however, Prebisch must be thought of as an actor, with his intentions, his prejudices, his ambitions, his values and his feelings. Nothing will serve better for gaining a clear understanding of these aspects than to consider his complex relationship with politics in his beloved and long-suffering Argentina.

In addressing the life and works of Prebisch, far from attempting to dogmatize and standardize his thinking and stereotype his personality, we must strive to capture all the conceptual, historical and personal wealth of one of the most important protagonists of twentieth-century Latin America and one of the most influential Latin Americans of his day.


Osvaldo Sunkel: El método histórico estructural (Marzo 2013 - 1:59)

Antonio Prado: Prebisch y el pensamiento autónomo de la América Latina y el Caribe  (diciembre 2013 - 3:13)

Luis Bértola: El método histórico estructural (Octubre 2013 - 2:59)