Véronique Dimier. The Invention of a European Development Aid Bureaucracy: Recycling Empire. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 256 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-230-30000-2.
Reviewed by Martin Rempe (Universität Konstanz)
Published on H-Diplo (March, 2015)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Colonialism Sine Fine
Studying colonial continuities is currently en vogue in the humanities. Inspired by postcolonial studies, such issues as the political and economic safeguarding of formerly colonial spheres of influence, the representation of colonial remembrance, and the postcolonial career patterns of former colonial staff have, among other topics, come to the fore in recent years. Although stemming from a different disciplinary background, political scientist Véronique Dimier is certainly a pioneer of this approach. Some fifteen years ago, she began her research on the return of French colonial administrators during the course of decolonization in Francophone Africa. Thanks to her research, we know that some of them entered the Directorate General (DG) VIII of the Commission of the European Economic Community (EEC) responsible for development aid. It is this small group of French colonial administrators that is at the heart of Dimier’s new book, The Invention of a European Development Aid Bureaucracy: Recycling Empire, which covers the period from the beginning of the EEC in 1958 until the present day.
Drawing on historical neo-institutionalist theory, Dimier’s general argument is that thanks to the French ex-colonial Jacques Ferrandi and his team, colonial practices were “recycled” in Brussels. DG VIII’s “colonial identity” was based on “mutual trust and obligations, personal and affective ties, opaque and anti-bureaucratic methods linked to the discretionary power of leaders, permanent exception to the rule and compromise” (p. 2). Despite personnel and conceptual changes within DG VIII and changing environments, like the entry of new member states and associated developing countries from the 1970s onward, this identity continued to considerably shape the EEC’s development approach. In short, decolonizing DG VIII constituted a very slow process—traces of which, according to Dimier, can still be detected today.
The book is divided into two parts: chapters 1 through 4 set out the institutionalization process under the leadership of Ferrandi in the long 1960s. Chapters 5 through 10, then, are dedicated to various attempts of reform and proceed in chronological order. Dimier depicts institutionalization as a process of identity building whereby carefully selected officials are committed to a mission with specific goals, norms, and methods. To be successful, this mission needs legitimation vis-à-vis the external environment and seeks autonomy from its stakeholders.
Chapter 1 covers the origins of the legal framework of European-African relations, the so-called Association of the overseas territories with the EEC, which became part of the Rome Treaty and, according to Dimier, represented a renewed “Pacte colonial” (p. 15). DG VIII’s mission is explored in detail in chapter 2. Dimier argues that the directorate itself was colonized by France’s former colonial administrators: Ferrandi, director of the European Development Fund (EDF) from 1963 onward, took the lead, while his friends were given strategically important positions; opponents were either urged to leave or disempowered by administrative reorganization; “colonial” methods and practices such as those mentioned above were established; adaptation to African realities instead of abstract scientific reasoning was supposed to guide decision making about development projects; and finally, a neo-patrimonial system of authority emerged within DG VIII—“Ferrandi’s ‘clan’” in Dimier’s words (p. 41). Chapter 3 focuses on the quest for legitimacy in Europe and in Africa, which was reached by marketing campaigns as well as frequent missions to African countries and regular visits by African representatives to Brussels. Chapter 4 retraces Ferrandi’s efforts of gaining autonomy vis-à-vis the member states (especially France), which is best documented by the establishment of a system of so-called contrôleurs délégués, project supervisors who controlled the implementation of development projects on the ground.
Students of European integration history will be familiar with this part of the book, given several articles published by Dimier over the last decade. Nonetheless, here she has refined her account insofar as she identifies a small group of “heretics” (p. 141) headed by the Belgian economist Jean Durieux who did not agree with Ferrandi’s style and favored a more rational, scientific, and efficient approach to development cooperation. However, Dimier is reluctant to concede to them a strong influence before the first enlargement in 1973.
The rest of the book investigates this conflict between bureaucratic reformers and colonial traditionalists in different variations. Chapters 5 and 6 argue that the entry of British officials and the explicit promises of reform by a new French commissioner (Claude Cheysson), while finally resulting in the forced departure of Ferrandi in 1975, nonetheless led to the perpetuation of his methods. Chapter 7 shifts to the practice of project aid and sheds light on DG VIII’s colonial path-dependencies in the fields of rural development and transportation. The introduction of the rather ineffective concepts of “efficiency” and “evaluation” in DG VIII’s development discourse during the 1980s are discussed in chapter 8, while chapter 9 turns to the normative shift in EU development aid toward conditionality following the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Chapter 10 discusses the reform of the European Commission along the lines of “New Public Management” (p. 179), which in 1998 resulted in the split of DG VIII into a renamed and largely disempowered DG Development and the consolidation of all European aid programs in one section, later called EuropeAid, where econometrics overrode pragmatic approaches. Chapter 11, focusing on the EU delegations in Africa, finally demonstrates that these bureaucratizing and rationalizing efforts of European aid also affected the EU administrations in Africa.
Dimier’s account is clearly structured; it fits well with her theoretical framework and is coherent. However, it is this very coherence that might be perplexing from a historian’s point of view. Indeed, Dimier’s book suffers from three problems. Methodologically, the book relies to a great extent on interviews the author conducted with former members of DG VIII between 1999 and 2010. Yet she completely ignores one fundamental insight of oral history, namely, that interviews regarding events in the distant past often tell us less about the events themselves than about the persons interviewed and their distinct modes of memory. This is particularly problematic, since the figure so central to Dimier’s arguments, Ferrandi, is a striking example of repeated public self-staging. And even in those cases where Dimier consults such archival sources as the Criteria for Appraisal of Projects from 1965, she only cites Ferrandi’s critical foreword while remaining silent about the fact that this document contains very detailed criteria catalogues for different development projects as well as a comparison of the EEC’s approach with the World Bank and USAID. In short, the strong coherence of Dimier’s picture seems to be the result of a rather one-sided methodological approach.
Secondly, from a more conceptual point of view, evidence for specific colonial continuities in EEC’s aid remains somewhat fuzzy. Dimier plays constantly with references to the colonial past, for example, the notion of “association” as a deeply colonial term, development cooperation as first “indirect” and later as “direct” rule, the British entry as a “new Fashoda,” road building as a colonial development approach, and so on (pp. 15, 31, 161, 82, 127). Beyond these rather associative correlations, Dimier’s main evidence seems to be the establishment of a patronage system within DG VIII and the persistence of colonial development methods. While the former need not be specifically linked to colonialism, as Dimier herself points out with regard to other sections of the European Commission, the latter is arguable, as the most bureaucratic early EEC aid program, the Production and Diversification Aid, is not mentioned at all. Taking such rational and scientific approaches into consideration more systematically might lead to significantly different conclusions about the evolution of European aid—instead of colonial persistence, conflict-laden Europeanization comes to the fore.
Thirdly and finally, African heads of states complained early on about the scientific rigidity and the bureaucratic procedure of the European Development Fund in general. Against this background, Dimier’s research perspective points to another worry about the book: her account is thoroughly Eurocentric. There is not a single hint that the governments of the associated states could have exerted any influence on the approach of the DG VIII beyond the repeated argument that African governments and administrations would function as neo-patrimonial systems that used development aid in order to maintain their patronage networks. At the end, the reader learns that their “methods may not have evolved much since Ferrandi’s time” (p. 211). Such judgment fits typical clichés about “the one, holistic” and “the never changing” Africa. It also misses the point, insofar as the age of decolonization witnessed a serious concern among political elites in Francophone Africa about the socioeconomic development of their countries, a concern that indeed shaped European-African development cooperation as well.
These problems notwithstanding, the book contains valuable empirical findings, for example, about Spanish and Swedish fingerprints in the European development policy in the 1990s. Bearing in mind that historical studies have thus far restricted their focus on the early period of the EEC until the first Lomé treaty in 1975, Dimier’s account will inform the next generation of historians dealing with European development cooperation from Lomé onward. The book’s overall merit is finally to point to certain fundamental ambiguities in bureaucracies in general: the conflicts between administrative routines and reformist fervor, between scientific advice and political intuition; between great master plans and moderate ad-hoc actions; and, finally, between bureaucratic overkill and individual freedom of action.
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Martin Rempe. Review of Dimier, Véronique, The Invention of a European Development Aid Bureaucracy: Recycling Empire.
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