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Colonial roots of modern development policy


Concepts of modern development aid have been inherited from Europe's colonialist era and thus have their roots much further in the past than has been thought till now. This is the outcome of a project supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF whose report was recently published in the book "Developing Africa".

As a rule, development aid is assumed to have begun with the start of the Cold War and the address of US President Harry S. Truman at the UN General Assembly in 1946. It is less well known how much the colonial system of the first half of the 20th century was already then marked by discussions and policies centring on development issues. This has now been shown by a research team led by the historian Walter Schicho from the University of Vienna in the context of an FWF-supported project. In a comprehensive historical analysis, the researchers trace the issue of "development" back to the First World War and find more continuity than gaps.

Colonial mind-sets and experiences

The scientists focused on French and British colonies in Africa. As the two largest colonial powers in Africa, France and the UK started to give their colonialism a legitimate appearance as far back as the 1920s and '30s by playing the development card. They stepped up investments in the economy and infrastructures of their colonies. "Even at that time, the notion of development became widely accepted in the colonial bureaucracy and among the public at large", explains Martina Kopf who was part of the project team. Together with Walter Schicho, plus the historian and development researcher Gerald Hödl and two undergraduates, this expert in African studies spent a total of about 40 weeks in archives and libraries both in the UK and France as well as in Tanzania and Senegal. In the process they collected a wealth of data from official documents, reports, and also from accounts by civil servants, teachers and missionaries – both men and women. On the basis of their historical, social and cultural scientific analysis of these data, the researchers from Vienna provide a differentiated picture of colonialism from a hitherto largely neglected perspective. The results will help better understand the roots of modern development policies in Africa. "In reports of colonial civil servants from the interwar years we found evidence of a level of commitment not unlike the one found in today's development co-operation. Even then, what was at stake was – to use modern terminology – fair trade, sustainable development or help towards self-help", notes Kopf.

Interaction between Europe and Africa

Akin to the situation today, development was linked to economic benefit for the megacities of London and Paris as the colonised countries progressed along lines planned and controlled from Europe. Both colonial powers, France and Britain, pursued very similar strategies. Their attention focused on harnessing resources, improved discipline of the indigenous population, a degree of modernisation – or, rather, Europeanisation – and creation of a local elite. They found that France repeatedly copied British strategies and, for instance, set up education systems based on Anglo-American models. These early forms of "development aid" greatly informed the interactions between Europeans and Africans.

Drawing conclusions about the present

The researchers from Vienna noted that a blatant difference as between public discourse and actual practice was characteristic of the history of colonial development – a quality that was also to be typical of post-colonial development regimes. "We're always surprised by how ephemeral historical memory is both in development research and in development co-operation", is how Martina Kopf comments on the conclusions to be drawn from historical insights for today's development activities. "A hundred years of ideas, measures and interventions in the name of development have not made great impact on the conception and evaluation of modern-day development relationships", Kopf adds.

International co-operation

A highlight of the FWF research project was an international meeting in Vienna gathering scientists of various disciplines from Europe, Africa and North America. The result of the networks and co-operation launched at this conference is the volume "Developing Africa", edited by Gerald Hödl, Martina Kopf and the US historian Joseph M. Hodge. It is the first international work comparing development discourse and actual practice of the colonial powers Britain, France and Portugal and hence represents a basic text for the relatively young discipline of the colonial history of development. Far from over, the evaluation of the data that was collected will be an ongoing effort for further projects. One of them seeks to create a digital archive on the history of Austrian development assistance.

Scientific Contact:

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Martina Kopf

University of Vienna

Department of Development Studies

Sensengasse 3/2/2

1090 Vienna, Austria

T +43 / 699 / 116 62 822

Austrian Science Fund FWF:

Marc Seumenicht

Haus der Forschung

Sensengasse 1

1090 Vienna, Austria

T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 - 8111


PR&D – Public Relations for Research and Education

Mariannengasse 8

1090 Vienna, Austria

T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44



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Article published on 05.10.2015

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