How has the history of development affected the present?


‘Development’, it can be argued, has only been recognised as a separate discipline relatively recently, with the reflections of academics on the past greatly influencing the contemporary processes of aid. I will be focusing on the profound effect of Colonialism for the reason proposed by Lange; ‘the colonial state was the primary extension of foreign domination’ (Lange, 2004). Lange articulates both negative aspects of the lasting impact of Colonialism with his own view being that ‘British colonialism left positive political legacies’ only in some circumstances. The opposing views of history illustrate the origins of intervention justified through the aim of the development of good governance and the strengthening of institutional structures; a concept central to development programmes today.

            A pattern of critique of Aid throughout the last century is its short-term, and therefore limited, nature. The Colonial Development Act of 1929 (a significant milestone in solidifying development as a discipline) meant that ‘colonial assistance was only given in cases of national emergency, and was purely of a temporary nature’ (Abbott 1971). However, aid programmes worldwide had not ‘learnt their lesson’ by the 1950s; the Columbo Plan was a humanitarian programme aimed at deterring Communism that, according to Van Rooy, was simply a ‘short term quick-fix’ (Van Rooy 2010). She contrasts this unsustainable form of development to the fall of the Berlin wall when, after reflecting on the success of past efforts, ‘new programmes in judicial reform…‘civil society building’, ‘democratic transition’ all flooded into Europe’ (Van Rooy 2010). These cases are significant in exemplifying how our experimentation in foreign policy in the past has in some cases taught governments and development agencies which methods of assistance are most flawed. Whether, as a result, our more recent programmes have been more successful, however, is still debateable.  Furthermore, a common criticism of the present government is their spending on non-emergency aid in a time of economic crisis in the UK, suggesting that the general public has not similarly ‘learnt from the past’.

            British Colonial history has also, arguably, influenced our lasting attitudes towards development. Surprisingly, however, it is not always the notion of compensation for colonial brutality that is most prevalent. Instead, there appears to be a pattern that aid-giving nations still wish to get something in return. Chamberlain, the secretary of state at the time of the Colonial Development Act, first favoured ‘the investment of British money… for the benefit of their population and for the benefit of the greater population which is outside’ (Abbott 1971). Similarly, Noam Chomsky commented on brutal intervention in Africa, stating ‘we have to figure out some way of saying ‘I’m doing it for their benefit’ (McCormack et al, 2008) and Baah reflected upon the Development agencies that contributed greatly (UK: £5 million) to the construction of the Akosombo Dam in Ghana. The objective was not to help Africa to develop but was instead in the interest of the West (Baah, 2003). These instances suggest again that history, in fact, has not so profoundly influenced our present approach to development, as the altruist would hope, but instead that the view prevails that it is ‘unreasonable’ (Nkruma cited in Baah, 2003) to expect a developed country to give aid for nothing.

A further impact of colonialism that I found particularly interesting was its effect on Africa. McCormack traces the roots of the contemporary conflict and structural weaknesses in Africa; the British Army’s policy of divide and rule created a tension between groups that helped to maintain British rule: many of these divides remain today; for example the politicization of the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda would profoundly contribute to the genocide of 1994 (McCormack et al, 2008). The Berlin conference (1884-5) and subsequent creation of many small countries in Africa was based on imperialist greed and Africa is still grappling with the ‘social dissolution’ (Stinglitz, 2002 cited in Baah 2003) that resulted. An example, however, of development institutions reflecting upon the past would be the push for the use of grants instead of loans that, many scholars argue, left many African countries indebted (Moyo 2008). Additionally, the Human Rights Act of 1948 was perhaps also a reflection upon the treatment of colonies after World War Two with former colonies being given the rights to be heard, to accountability and to Rule of Law.

To conclude, even today, according to Kothari, Post-colonialists attempt to review how contemporary global inequalities between rich and poor countries have been, and continue to be, shaped by colonial power relations. Some have argued that development is a ‘‘neo-colonial’ project that reproduces global inequalities and maintains the dominance of the South, through global capitalist expansion, by the North’ (Kothari 2005). Most recently, we can see the moral memory of colonialism being resurrected in the Mau Mau case (Cobain et al, 2012) in which may ‘result in a new and uncomfortable understanding of recent British history’, perhaps finally spurring a significant change in our approach to development.



Lange, Matthew (2004) ‘British Colonial Legacies and Political Development’, World Development, Vol 32(6): 905-922

Abbott, George (1971) ‘A Re-Examination of the 1929 Colonial Development Act’, The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 24 (1): 68-81

Van Rooy, Alison (2010) ‘Good news! You might be out of a job. Reflections on the past and future 50 years for northern NGOs,’ Development in Practice, 10(3): 300-318.

McCormack, Pete and Miller, Jesse (2008) ‘Colonialism in 10 minutes: the scramble for Africa’

Baah, Anthony (2003) ‘History of African Development Initiatives’, Africa Labour Research Network Workshop Johannesburg: 1-10

Moyo, Dambisa (2008), ‘A Brief History of Aid’ in Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is Another Way for Africa, London: Penguin, pp10-28

Kothari, Uma (2005) ‘From colonial administration to development studies: a post-colonial critique of the history of development studies’, in A Radical History of Development Studies: Individuals, Institutions and Ideologies, ed. Uma Kothari, London: Zed Books.

Ian Cobain, Richard Norton-Taylor, and Clar Ni Chonghaile  (2012), ‘Mau Mau veterans win right to sue British government’, The Guardian


2 responses »

  1. This touches on the idea of the white savior, methinks – the idea that we have to somehow be saving or helping those we’re giving aid to to justify the very act. As if giving aid for the sake of it wasn’t enough. Another great post!

  2. This was a well researched piece – and you make a number of important points. I think Cat hits the nail on the head when she talks about the white saviour, and the justifications of aid: you might want to take her thoughts and draw out more what you’re saying about this, deepening your analysis. I felt you could do some more work to tighten up your argument. You could do this with more analysis of the examples you give, and by bringing out your points more clearly. Watch out for your punctuation – lots of capital letters that ought to be lower case – and referencing (if you’re quoting, use page numbers, Harvard-style, or put page numbers in footnotes). A bibliography ought to be in alphabetical order, so reorder yours, and when something is from a web source you can hyperlink to it in the text itself (run your mouse over the phrase you want to highlight, click the ‘links’ icon and paste in the URL).

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