International Organisations and the Politics of Development: Historical Perspectives. Graduate Institute Geneva; University of Geneva, 06.12.2013-07.12.2013.
Reviewed by Marie Huber
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (April, 2014)
International Organisations and the Politics of Development: Historical Perspectives
This year’s annual Pierre du Bois conference, hosted by the Graduate Institute Geneva in collaboration with the University of Geneva, concerned international organisations and their politics and practices with regards to development, an issue that was analysed and discussed from the historical perspective over the course of two days. The organisers, Davide Rodogno and Sandrine Kott, invited participants to explore meaningful continuities and ruptures in the longue durée history of development visions, practices, and politics as implemented by international organisations. In their introductory statement, they explained their understanding of international organisations as platforms and hubs for the exchange and production of knowledge, and the interaction and connection between stakeholders and expert communities. Furthermore, they delineated the research setting as one in which processes and histories beyond nation states, political systems or decades can be appropriately assessed; indeed, they argued that international organisations serve as a prism through which social and political changes and histories can be studied. The existing panoply of ways development has been defined reads both broad and manifold: betterment, improvement, and wellbeing in the economic and financial dimension, but also a characterisation through social and humanitarian traditions. Development activities have evolved around the core dimensions of labour, education, nutrition, and health. But the conveners suggested the starting hypothesis that, if executed by international organisations, development and development politics could be seen as administrative strategies that do not target people but rather authorities. Additionally, the organisers highlighted the importance of wars as catalytic moments for the history of development activities.
A selection of central research questions were common among the presentations that followed, including the distinction between different programmes and efforts, the extent to which development has been fostered by international organisations’ need for self-justification, and the ideological shift in international organisations towards depoliticised technology and science agencies.
On the first day, one of the main topics was the emergence of development politics and practices on an international scale, starting with the first panel “Roots of International Development from 1914 to 1938”. The US-American experience after the First World War and US-based philanthropic foundations were discussed in the first two papers. BRANDEN LITTLE (Ogden), in his paper “The First World War and its Aftermath: the American Experience”, stressed the importance of the First World War as a structural and ideological turning point in the re-orientation of humanitarian relief activities into development programmes. LUDOVIC TOURNÈS (Geneva) analysed the Rockefeller Foundation’s discourse on development in the interwar years. This discourse evolved around ideas and concepts of technological modernity and laid the theoretical groundwork for “Philanthropic Foundations and the Exportation of Development”. The technical assistance programmes executed by international organisations in the interwar period heavily relied on experts and their specific knowledge, aiming to establish the international standards derived from newly ratified conventions. These programmes were not simply exhorted but sometimes specifically and actively requested, as shown by VÉRONIQUE PLATA (Geneva/Paris) through examples in her presentation “The International Labor Organisation’s (ILO) Technical Assistance Practices in the Balkans and Latin America”. The absence of colonial powers in the latter cases allowed the development agencies of international organisations a greater range of action. The practices of colonial empires often also provided the basis out of which development measurements evolved into politics, as SIMON JACKSON (Florence) explained in his paper “From Imperial Food Relief to Mandatory Development: the Politics of Emergency in French Syria-Lebanon”.
The second panel on “Colonial Legacies” explored these topics further; the papers discussed the transformation of development practices in light of the transformation of colonial empires to post-colonial international relations. JOSEPH HODGE (Morgantown), with his investigation of the postcolonial careers of British colonial servants and “The Internationalisation of Development Practices and Discourses from the British Empire to International Organisations” stated that the distinction (and consequent periodisation) between colonial and post-colonial times has lost significance due to the trans-historic continuity of expert knowledge. With his paper on the “Internationalisation of Development Practices from the French Empire to the European Economic Community”, MARTIN REMPE (Konstanz) provided insights both into the conflict-ridden collaboration between the old colonial administrations and new European experts from the European Development Fund (EDF), and about the European Economic Community (EEC) development activities which grew out of their strong “French imprint” into a more technocratic practice in which statistical data gained priority over the influence of individual actors. ALEXANDER KEESE’s (Berlin) paper “Back to the Wall: The Portuguese Late Colonial State, the Legacy of Forced Labour, the ILO and the War of Words, 1953-1978” revealed the extent to which the Portuguese colonial and post-colonial government perceived their actions as beneficial improvement. This perception was also constructed within the interplay of actors such as the ILO and the local African Elites in Angola and Mozambique, and differed vastly from the experiences of the population on the ground.
The third panel concluded the day by showing how concepts and practices advanced “From Relief and Rehabilitation to Development during the 1940s”. SILVIA SALVATICI’s (Teramo) case study from “UNRRA and its vision of development: Some empirical evidence on the Italian Case”, demonstrated a case that was largely characterised both by a paternalistic attitude and detachment from the populations’ actual habits and possibilities, and a clear political, programmatic anti-fascist approach. The ideology of democracy and technocracy as alternatives to centralised planning was also a pillar of “The Birth of the UN Technical Assistance Scheme”, as DAVID WEBSTER (Sherbrooke) pointed out in his paper. MICHELE ALACEVICH’s (New York) study of “Development Ideas and the World Bank: 1950s-1970s” told a more complex, non-linear history of knowledge production and distribution of development ideas, methods, and visions inside the World Bank.
The second day’s panels approached development from contrasting perspectives of periodisation, and started with the conference’s fourth panel on “Development as a ‘Postcolonial’ Project”. DANIEL SPEICH (Luzern) extrapolated from the historic signing of the Yaoundé Convention on “How Decolonisation fostered Discussion on Development within International Organisations”. In the case of European-African relationships, his paper sharply highlighted the importance of the semantics of development in the discussion of international relations which has led to international organisations shifting from diplomacy to macro-economic reasoning. In their case study “Rural Development and the World Bank”, CORINNA UNGER (Bremen) and MARC FREY (Munich) examined the World Bank’s shift regarding agriculture and sketched the Bank’s multifaceted role in a system of knowledge production, financial matters, and national as well as international institutions from 1945 into the 1990s. In doing so, they contributed to the larger picture of global (inter-)dependencies in development politics. The picture of the World Bank as an apolitical actor, whose projects are justified by demands derived from academic research, was challenged and diversified by JULIA TISCHLER’s (Berlin) paper “Decolonising Development: The World Bank’s Role in the Karia Dam Project”. Despite active attempts to decolonise and develop a universal ideology, the sources presented spoke of distinct underlying colonial presumptions and racist concepts in the World Bank’s actions.
The fifth panel was concerned with “Development as a Cold War Issue”. This periodical outline was framed by SANDRINE KOTT’s (Geneva) examination, “From Western Development Projects in Eastern Europe to Competing Projects of Development in the South”. Although overshadowed from the current perspective by the competition of economic models, development aid in the time of Cold War underwent a process of transition from the so-called “first” to the “second” and into the “third” world. Looking at international organisations brings processes of cross-fertilisation and historically successful aspects of eastern European countries’ recently acquired knowledge, which proved crucial in overcoming a perceived backwardness in the so-called “developing” countries, to light.
In another case study on the World Bank, “‘We can make money, but we can’t make water’: The World Bank and development diplomacy in Indus and Mekong Basins”, VINCENT LANGENDIJK (Maastricht) showed the complicated role of a development agent in areas of conflict attempting to avoid “development diplomacy” and instead initiate a technical development scheme. The intertwined constellation of development, diplomacy and economic progress was explained in CORINNE PERNET’s (Basel) paper on “Latin America as a Testing Ground for Large Development Plans”, in which she emphasised that the history of development could be viewed as a history of modernisation, especially in the case of Latin America, where a strong, proactive demand for development arose out of economic reasoning for gaining access to US markets but in return provided a seemingly uncomplicated opportunity for the US to test foreign policies.
The sixth and final panel gave room to analyse “The Many Faces of Development” and highlighted the controversy and diversity of development. HEIKE WIETERS’ (Berlin) case study, “Development expertise for sale. CARE and the Peace Corps in Colombia; or the rise and demise of public private partnership” shed light on the importance of NGOs and their work as an entryway to US governmental development agencies’ efforts. MARIA LETICIA GALLUZZI BIZZO’s (Rio de Janeiro) case study on nutrition development politics displayed a concise analysis of “Brazil: from the League of Nations to the FAO (1932-1956)”, which explained the nation’s deliberate redefinition of their own economic and developmental status and position on related problems in order to acquire developmental aid.
THOMAS DAVID (Lausanne) and DAVIDE RODOGNO (Geneva) provided an insight into how an international organisation elaborates its understanding of development practices, and how competing discourses and consequent tensions developed between various international organizations involved in the politics of development with their paper “The genealogy, purpose and enforcement of WHO fellowship programs”, which was concerned with the long standing tradition of training experts in order to create human capital for enforced, longer lasting development impulses.
The papers presented over the course of the conference revealed that the mechanisms at play in the development agencies of international organisations are complex, and progressively difficult to fully comprehend. However, the variety of sources the papers presented at the conference, such as correspondences, surveys, and reports, resulted in the exploration of individual as well as institutional careers, transnational processes, and paradigmatic case studies. This allowed for an enriched, encompassed longitudinal and lateral historiography and established new trajectories of the development politics and practices of international organisations that unfolded alongside imperial, colonial and postcolonial relations, war and post-war times, and technological modernism.
Through the prolific variety in scope, which contained a multiplicity of perspectives and subjects, a recognisable set of co-related results were able to take shape, formulating an understanding that, firstly, development activities played a key role in the process of redefining the purpose of international organisations and reinforced their effort to legitimise themselves after the depoliticisation of international relations that started after WWI, and secondly, that the centrality of technocracy as a core value and ideological concept is characteristic to all development agencies and actors, institutional as well as individual, and transcends national as well as political boundaries. This résumé reiterated the importance of actor networks, expert communities, and technology transfers.
The conference was accompanied by remarkably rich and detailed debates over terminology, periodisation, the conceptual history of development, the role of experts and technology, and individual national narratives, as well as the modus operandi and the logics of international organisations. An ongoing aspect framing the commentaries and debates was the hermeneutical conflict arising from a more or less exclusively Western viewpoint, whether concerning the organisations researched or the provenience of the researchers themselves. The need to include this perspective as well as the interdisciplinary collaboration with fields such as ethnography and area studies were stressed as being critical to complement our understanding of international organisations and the politics of development.
In the concluding discussions, the accent was placed on the careful contextualisation of research results; the investigation of written sources with regard to international organisations can only provide a view from the centre, and proportionally more sources exist on the institutional level than on the ground.
Welcome and Introduction
Irina du Bois (President of the Pierre du Bois Foundation)
Sandrine Kott (Université de Genève) / Davide Rodogno (The Graduate Institute)
Panel 1. Roots of International Development (1914-1938)
Chair: David Ekbladh (Tufts University)
Branden Little (Weber State University), The First World War and its aftermath; the American experience
Ludovic Tournès (Université de Genève), Philanthropic foundations and the exportation of development.
Véronique Plata (Université de Genève et Université Paris X), The ILO technical assistance practices in the Balkans and Latin America
Simon Jackson (European University Institute), From imperial food relief to mandatory development: the politics of emergency in French Syria-Lebanon
Panel 2: Colonial legacies
Chair: JP Daughton (Stanford University)
Joseph Hodge (West Virginia University) , The internationalization of development practices and discourses from the British Empire to international organizations.
Martin Rempe (Universität Konstanz), Internationalization of development practices from the French Empire to the European Economic Community.
Alexander Keese (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Back to the wall: The Portuguese late colonial state, the legacy of forced labor, the ILO and the war of words, 1953-1978
Panel 3. From Relief and Rehabilitation to Development during the 1940s
Chair : Davide Rodogno (The Graduate Institute, Geneva)
Silvia Salvatici (Università degli Studi di Teramo), UNRRA and its vision of development. Some empirical evidence on the Italian case.
David Webster (Bishop's University), The birth of the UN Technical Assistance scheme
Michele Alacevich (Columbia University), Development Ideas and the World Bank: 1950s-1970s
Panel 4. Development as a “postcolonial” project?
Chair: Kiran Patel (Maastricht University)
Daniel Speich (Universität Luzern), How decolonization fostered discussion on development within international organization
Corinna Unger / Marc Frey (Jacobs University Bremen / Universität der Bundeswehr München), Rural development and the World Bank.
Julia Tischler (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Decolonising development? The World Bank’s role in the Kariba Dam project.
Panel 5. Development as a Cold War issue
Chair: Andreas Eckert (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin / Université de Genève)
Sandrine Kott (Université de Genève), From Western development projects in Eastern Europe to competing projects of development in the South.
Vincent Lagendijk (Maastricht University), ‘We can make money, but we can't make water’: The World Bank and development diplomacy in the Indus and Mekong Basins.
Corinne Pernet (Universität Basel), Latin America as a testing ground for large development plans.
Panel 6. The many faces of development
Chair: Bertrand Taithe (Manchester University)
Heike Wieters (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Development expertise for sale. CARE and the Peace Corps in Colombia; or the rise and demise of a public private partnership.
Maria Leticia Galluzzi Bizzo (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), Brazil: from the League of Nations to the FAO (1932-1956).
Thomas David / Davide Rodogno (Université de Lausanne / The Graduate Institute), The genealogy, purpose and enforcement of WHO fellowship programs
Kiran Patel (Maastricht University)
Bertrand Taithe (Manchester University)
Andreas Eckert (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin / Université de Genève)
Corinna Unger (Jacobs University Bremen)
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