Reply to Bill Easterly

In his recent blog post entitled 2500 years of Development Professor Bill Easterly argues that “for most of history, things were mainly happening along the line between Birmingham and Baghdad,” as represented by the lights on Gareth Lloyd’s new video which geo-locates Wikipedia mentions of events between 498 BC and 2011 AD on a world map.


A History of the World in 100 Seconds from Gareth Lloyd on Vimeo.


Perhaps Professor Easterly is being tendentious in order to court controversy but nonetheless this fallacious and offensive claim should not go unchallenged.

Development has not been Eurocentric; regrettably much written and taught about development history has been.

Whilst the lights from Birmingham to Baghdad shine brightly in the video, the map has almost no illumination to reflect the cultural achievements and great trading network of Mayan civilisation, nor the agricultural and engineering advancements of the Inca; nor the great city states and military empire forged by the Aztecs.

Development in China far outstripped that of Europe for many centuries during the European Middle Ages – yet this is not well reflected. For much of the millennium between the fall of the Roman Empire and the end of the Ming Dynasty, Europe was a development backwater when compared to China – as any encyclopaedic comparison of “Ming Dynasty” with “Dark Ages” will attest.

In relative terms wikipedians have also poorly represented developments within Africa including the great trading Empire of Ghana, the military and expansive Mali Empire, and the Songhai Empire with its thousands of learned university graduates. If wikipedians had documented the development of African states, religions and wars as effectively as they have those of Europe the video would then tell a different story with illumination to reflect the great opulence of the Ashanti as well as the monumental achievements of Great Zimbabwe, a city at the centre of a trading network that extended as far as India and China.

For the record: Birmingham in 1086 was a small village officially valued at 20 shillings in the Doomsday Book produced that year, and remained no more than a small market town until well into the 1500s. Timbuktu on the other hand, was twice the size of London, though small compared to other cities in the Mali Empire; it was a centre of scholastic learning, at the heart of an empire larger than the whole of Western Europe.

Mentions of events in the English version of Wikipedia do not equal development in any meaningful way; measuring mentions of events in Wikipedia is not even close to an effective proxy for development.

What mentions of events in the English version of Wikipedia do accurately mirror are the biases and discriminations of our existing educational system including its view of history as the actions of great Europeans; wikipedians are themselves products of that flawed education system so, whilst disappointing, it is perhaps not surprising that they reflect the same prejudices and cultural blinkers as their university professors.

No doubt if we measured ‘mentions of inventions’ on Wikipedia we would find that it reduces the history of technology to a succession of heroic (white male) inventors. Prof. Easterly might then produce this as evidence that women play an inconsequential role in history: again reproducing the prejudices and discriminations of history as currently taught.

White male professors dominate the reproduction of history in universities in Europe and the USA. Men write 87% of Wikipedia contributions. Wikipedia evidences a worldview in which Africa is less important that Europe and women are less important men. Thus are reproduced exactly the prejudices and discriminations that ‘justify’ and lead to inequality and underdevelopment.

Geoff Lloyd’s video helps us to better understand the glaring omissions and prejudices in currently production of history and the representation of development.

We have a long way to go to remove racial and gender prejudice from the historical record; the task is urgent. We must hope that the next generation of university Professors and wikipedians will better reflect the true diversity of society and social development.


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