The substantial effort by the rich nations of the West to cooperate in the economic and social development of their less-fortunate neighbors has been one of the truly phenomenal historical changes that have occurred since World War II. John McCamant has concentrated on the Central American region in an attempt to determine and evaluate the lasting effects of development assistance on politics and economics.
A superficial historical background precedes a thorough discussion of the various activities that have received development assistance from the United States, the United Nations, and other international sources. He details the development of planning and public administration, transportation, electric power, public health, education, agriculture, and industry from about 1950 to 1956. In separate chapters on each of these topics, McCamant builds a case to support his conclusion that development assistance to the public sector in the 1950s contributed significantly to the economic growth of Central America from 1960 to 1964.
He believes that the increased development assistance to the public sector in the early sixties should bring about even greater economic gains in the near future. Economic growth comes more slowly from investment in the public sector than from the private sector, but it is essential to provide those goods and services that private enterprise either cannot or will not provide. Admitting that corruption, inexperience, and political turmoil have hindered the efforts of the economic planners, McCamant says that “the most useful purpose of the planning process may be to educate the Central American public on the importance of the public sector in promoting the general welfare of the country” (p. 87). He is convinced that while economic assistance can do little to encourage democratic institutions, it can make public administration more efficient and thereby improve the general welfare.
Transportation, chiefly the completion of the Inter-American Highway, accounted for about half of all development assistance during the period, and McCamant offers this as the best example of how long-range benefits can result from investment in the public sector. On the other hand, he believes that too little has been invested in public education and argues persuasively for increased expenditure there.
An optimistic account of Central American political development leads to the conclusion that “the present political system in Central America differs completely from any previous system. The past experience of national parliamentary systems is quite irrelevant to predicting their future. . . . Complete constitutional authority still resides at the national level with the usual organs of government, but these now feel as much pressure from the international system as they do from national groups. A loose Central American confederation exists and thrives, but it lacks a defined jurisdictional structure” (pp. 302-303).
One gets the feeling, however, that McCamant has not fully investigated the importance of traditional forces in the politics of most Central American states. His bibliography, while very useful for contemporary data, reflects his training as an economist and political scientist and suggests insufficient attention to the historical forces in the region. Apparent contradictions, although not numerous, detract from the author’s credibility. For example, on p. 41 we are told that “if the peaceful transformation from a dictatorship to a democracy is possible anywhere in Latin America, it will happen in Nicaragua.” Yet on p. 300, “in neither Honduras nor Nicaragua is there any chance of a reform party composed of new groups coming to power.”
This kind of monograph might better be left to university presses, if commercial presses cannot provide a better product at $15.00 per copy. Printed from typescript, it suffers from ragged margins, numerous errors in names, and an annoying inconsistency in the use of Spanish accent marks, all of which lessen its thoroughness. Finally the lack of an index is a very serious deficiency. In spite of these unfortunate shortcomings, the work is a significant contribution to the recent political and economic history of Central America.