Solidarity in development?

Written by Corinna Unger on . Posted in Current opinions, Opinions

Against the background of the migration ‘crisis’, the increasing frequency of terrorist attacks in European cities and growing concern about the demographic effects of climate change, politicians and diplomats across the European Union and its member states are discussing the viability of using development aid to reduce poverty and economic inequality abroad. In 2017 the European Commission considered using EU development funds to improve the military capacities of African countries, suggesting that stability and development depend on security. Simultaneously, the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation proposed a ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’, arguing that providing financial and technical aid would create jobs for Africans in Africa and prevent them from migrating to Europe.

Professor Corinna Unger will chair a panel at The State of the Union 2018 entitled ‘Solidarity in Development?’

From a historical perspective, the pivot toward development aid as a foreign policy tool seems less a discovery than a rediscovery. The roots of contemporary development thinking and practice reach back at least to the early twentieth century. In the interwar period, many observers began to argue that socioeconomic ‘backwardness’ and regional inequality presented a potential source of conflict and necessitated external interventions. This idea gained traction in the context of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, which, in the eyes of many observers in Western Europe, was an expression of the grave inequality between a small landed elite and a vast, impoverished peasant society. Thus, measures geared at ‘improvement’ and ‘uplift’ were carried out in those regions where living standards were particularly low. Colonial governments and non-governmental organisations ran programs to provide rural populations in different parts of Europe and in the European colonies with access to basic education and health care and to introduce them to more efficient agricultural practices in order to increase the economic revenue and to prevent radical ideas from taking root.

In the aftermath of the First World War, humanitarian organisations engaged in relief work that entailed structural measures like the establishment of schools, clinics, and job programs for refugees and resettled populations. The League of Nations promoted the establishment of new administrative and financial structures in the newly created nation states of Central and Eastern Europe to create those structural conditions considered necessary for economic growth and political stability. Though this was not called ‘development aid’ at the time, it entailed many of those elements which, in the postwar period, would constitute the field of development work.

The Second World War and its wide-ranging effects on the international order intensified the concern with issues of development and ‘underdevelopment’. At a time when many European colonies in Asia and Africa were striving for independence, European imperial powers used development assistance as a means of maintaining control over their colonies and to (re)gain legitimacy for imperial rule. Several ‘non-imperial’ countries engaged in development too, hoping to gain access to new markets as well as international visibility. The newly established European Economic Community (EEC) also provided development assistance. In the 1950s and 1960s, EEC aid helped maintain economic and political ties with former colonies and newly independent states in Africa and Asia, whose political leaders were eager to industrialise and ‘modernise’ their countries as quickly as possible. They also received large amounts of technical and economic support from the Soviet Union, the United States, and their respective allies, which hoped to draw the recipients of aid into their spheres of influence and to prevent them from joining the other side.

Evidently, it is difficult to distinguish clearly between development aid as an expression of solidarity with those in need and the use of development as a strategic tool. What seems notable is the fact that over the course of the twentieth century such a broad variety of actors – from colonial governments to international organisations to non-governmental groups to individual experts – considered development assistance as a solution to very different problems. This was largely due to the opaque nature of the term ‘development’, which could be filled with a variety of meanings and serve contrasting goals.

So what do European politicians and diplomats today mean when they call for new approaches to development? Which are the ‘old’ approaches they want to replace, and to what degree are their expectations toward development shaped by past experiences? To answer these questions, we must look to the historical roots of the various development approaches tried out over time, at the agendas of their proponents and opponents, at the political and ideological settings in which they were anchored, at the ways in which they were implemented, at the practical effects they had, and at the lessons that were drawn from those experiences.

This is not to say that contemporary decision-makers can identify useful approaches in the past if only they look hard enough. Rather, a historical perspective on development can provide a better understanding of the factors that have influenced development-related structures, which paradigms and interests have shaped development approaches, and why so many development projects are considered to be ‘failures’. It is in studying the challenges of past experiences with development that we can learn much about the process of development and its meaning for the future.

Corinna Unger is Professor of Global and Colonial History in the Department of History and Civilization of the EUI. Her panel at The State of the Union 2018 is entitled ‘Solidarity in Development? Historical Experiences and Present Concerns with Economic Stability and Political Security across Borders’.

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