Has the history of development affected the present?


‘Development’ has only been recognised as a separate discipline relatively recently, with the reflections of academics on the past often influencing the contemporary processes of aid. I will focus on the effect of colonial discourses for the reason proposed by Lange; that ‘the colonial state was the primary extension of foreign domination’ (Lange, 2004). Reflections on whether this foreign domination was beneficial to the colonies lead us to question whether development today is truly aimed towards the development of good governance and the strengthening of institutional structures. We must also question whether we have developed morally after reflection upon past failures.

A continuing critique of aid is its short-term, and therefore limited, nature comparable to much colonial intervention. From this analysis we can examine whether aid processes have evolved. The Colonial Development Act of 1929 meant that ‘colonial assistance was only given in cases of national emergency, and was purely of a temporary nature’ (Abbott, 1971: 68). This ‘short term quick-fix’ is reflected today in the frenzy of charitable giving in emergencies such as Haiti contrasted to the broad but shallow developmental aid (Van Rooy, 2010: 302). 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: 304). Similarly, today the increasing predominance of language such as ‘sustainability’, ‘equality’ and ‘partnership’ imply that humanitarian aid is simply the most propagandised form of aid (UN MDGs). Therefore, although public opinion is geared towards short term aid, many development initiatives reflect what is often seen as the positive, long term, structural changes reminiscent of colonialism.


However, many academics claim this form of development to be regressive and neo-colonial, reproducing global inequalities and maintaining the dominance of the North, through global capitalist expansion (Kothari, 2005: 62). Accordingly, there appears to be a pattern that aid-giving nations still wish to get something in return. First, Chamberlain advocated ‘the investment of British money… for the benefit of the greater population’ (Abbott, 1971: 68). Sixty years later, the building of the Akosombo Dam in Ghana appeared a continuation of this self-interested development as it maintained Ghana’s loyalty in the Cold War (Baah, 2003: 3). This perpetuating idea, reinforced by Chomsky (in McCormack et al., 2008), that ‘we have to figure out some way of saying “I’m doing it for their benefit”’ suggests that history has not so profoundly influenced contemporary development. Unfortunately, governments may indeed have taken reflected on the past but continue to believe that it is ‘unreasonable’ (Nkruma cited in Baah, 2003: 3) to expect a developed country to give aid for nothing.

However, some would, in fact, argue that development practices have evolved through reflection. McCormack (2008) traces the roots of the contemporary conflict and structural weaknesses in Africa: the British Army’s policy of divide and rule and the Berlin Conference created lasting ‘social dissolution’ between groups that helped to maintain British rule (Stinglitz, 2002 cited in Baah, 2003: 1). Recent developmental initiatives, however, appeared to have reformed their approach. For example, the push for the use of grants instead of loans after scholars argued they left many African countries indebted (Moyo, 2008: 8). Similarly, the hype around microfinance died down and alternatives are being sought after they were found to be flawed (Provost, 2012).


To conclude, post-colonialists attempt to review how contemporary global inequalities between rich and poor countries have and continue to be shaped by colonial power relations. Whilst we may certainly continue a healthy critique of development and remain wary of accusations of colonialism, public pressure towards legitimacy and positive development is far stronger in the 21st century than in the period of decolonisation and the Cold War.


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

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

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.

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

McCormack, Pete and Miller, Jesse (2008) ‘Colonialism in 10 minutes: the scramble for Africa’, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw12KGSj53k [accessed 10/10/2012].

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.

Provost, Claire (2012) ‘The rise and fall of microfinance’, The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/nov/21/rise-fall-microfinance [accessed 10/10/2012].

United Nations, Millennium Development Goals, http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/global.shtml, [accessed 10/10/2012].

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.

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