The ancient alchemists sought means by which common metals could be turned into precious ones. They drew upon the primordial forms of modern chemistry, devised ingenious but questionable apparatuses, and used some magic. No evidence exists, however, of anyone succeeding in transforming (significant quantities of) lead into gold with the application of such methods.
Development thought hit an impasse largely because development theorists and practitioners were trying (and arguably, are still trying) to do something very similar. They were drawing upon primordial forms of development theory, suggesting interesting but questionable/incomplete assumptions about history and its connections to the present/future affairs, and depending too much on..well, not magic, but conditional aid money.
The ancient alchemists thought there was only four elements (and later, seven), and that – using the “right methods” – any substance can be made out of those four elements. Modern chemistry came about to tell us that that we have 118 chemical elements, and that theoretically, any substance can be made using those elements. Theoretically is the key word here, because for this to be possible, the right conditions must exist. The right conditions are not always practically feasible. As I have suggested in a previous post, the issue becomes less epistemological (what elements can we use to make X?) and more practical (How can we create the right conditions so that we can combine A & B to make X).
Traditional development practitioners and theorists thought that there is only a limited number of development paths (like alchemists theorized that only a handful of basic elements exist) that nations can go through and that history has plateaued. As development thought matures, I believe we will see that we have a multitude of paths, just like modern chemists have plenty of elements to play with. What we have to do is find the right conditions for the optimal paths.
Like ancient alchemists, old school development practitioners – as I will henceforth call them – are trying to turn something undesirable into something desirable, but their methods – also like alchemists – are obsolete. They have become the old school of development like alchemists have become the old school of chemistry.
I am not a chemist, but I do believe that – metaphorically speaking – lead can be turned into gold from a developmental sense. Only if we shed inherited assumptions about how to do so.