Colonial Concepts of Development in Africa

Institut für Afrikanistik, Universität Wien
01.04.2009 - 31.03.2012
Hödl, Gerald

“Let it be admitted at the outset that European brains, capital, and energy have not been, and never will be, expended in developing the resources of Africa from motives of pure philanthropy.”(1)

What could appear as the starting phrase of a modern critique of European development policy in African states is in fact part of the pro-imperialistic argumentation of one of the key-texts of British colonialism in West Africa in the second decade of the 20th century. Frederick Lugard, Governor-General of colonial Nigeria and British representative on the League of Nations’ Permanent Mandate Commission (1922-1936), is but one of numerous protagonists of European colonial politics and administration in Africa who from the 1920ies onward introduced the notion of development into European discourse on Africa. Almost 100 years later the concept of development remains at the forefront of the global political agenda, as show the Millennium Development Goals proclaimed by the UN General Assembly 2000. Though strategies and theories have changed substantially since the 1950s, the basic view of development as something beneficial has been upheld not only by the global elites, but also by civil society activists and organisations both in the Global South and North. At the same time, a second line of argument has gained ground since the early 1990s, especially within the social sciences, contesting development as being Eurocentric, alienating, and detrimental to human needs.

The manifold continuities, uncertainties, and controversies surrounding the notion of development today have motivated us to go back in time and delve into its archives – both in the factual and the discursive senses. We explore the last four decades of British and French colonial rule in Africa, specifically in Senegal and Tanganyika/Tanzania, in order to establish how and when the key elements of development took shape and gained ground.
Our Approach

At the first level, the project investigates the concept(s) of development within colonial discourse, tries to fathom its (their) relative importance over time and explores the relationship between colonial discourse and the emerging development discourse. At the second level, the project will closely look at the internal structure of the development paradigm itself, at its various discursive strands, and its overall trajectory from the early 1920s to the late 1950s.
Issues of analysis

- Status of Development
To appraise the relative importance of development within colonial discourse, we examine its relationship to other discursive elements that underpinned and legitimised colonial rule, for example pacification and establishing law and order.

- Meaning of Development
What are the semantic patterns that governed the usage of the term (and its French equivalent, développement)? In which contexts was the word used, and in which contexts did it compete with similar terms like evolution, growth, progress, civilisation, mise en valeur, and modernisation?

- Protagonists of Development
Europeans conceived of themselves as the dynamic element in colonial development. At the same time we should not presume that Africans – not even in the European imagination – were strictly confined to a passive role, even less so in the closing stages of the colonial period. Each concept brings specific actors into the fold, such as private companies, churches, local initiatives or the various branches of colonial administration on the part of the ‘developers’, as well as individuals or more or less well-defined social groups on the part of the ‘receiving end’. What roles are assigned to the various groups in the colonial arena: who is the ‘developer’, who is to be developed, and are there people regarded as external to development policies? In which way were colonial women and men as well as colonized women and men implicated differently into the (European) conceptualization of development?

- Goals of Development
Development is mainly defined by the goals it tries to reach. Any development concept needs to answer the questions what and who is to be developed and which direction(s) these interventions should take. Was colonial development about raising the productive capacity of a given territory or about creating better living conditions for its inhabitants – just to name the two most common assumptions? Should economic, technological, social and/or cultural change imitate the imperial centre, with a capitalist industrial society being the ultimate goal, – or should African colonies follow a different path? Answering these questions, we try to assess what scope the developmentalist aspirations had, whether they tended to be all-encompassing social utopias or rather limited attempts at ecological, economic and social engineering, targeted at specific regions (urban/rural) or social groups (workers, cash-crop producers, etc.).

- Means of Development
Up to the present, not only the goals but also the means of development have remained highly contested. Though the terms may have changed over time, the proposed methods of how to achieve development for the most part have not. These still range from boosting capital investment to strengthening human capital and promoting social welfare. Among the central issues at stake was the question whether to rely on the ‘invisible hand’ of the market or on planning strategies. Another issue worth investigating is the role ascribed to science and technology. Again on the individual level, it is important to look at the ways how Europeans tried to make Africans conform to their developmentalist ideals. Did they prefer coercion and control or did they opt for positive incentives?

(1) Lugard, Frederick (1926): The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa. Edinburgh, London: Blackwood (3rd edition)
p. 617.


Dr. Gerald Hödl and Dr. Martina Kopf

University of Vienna / Department of African Studies
Project “Colonial Concepts of Development in Africa”
Spitalgasse 2, Hof 5
1090 Vienna / Austria
T +43 (0)1 4277 43208

Colonial Concepts of Development in Africa, 01.04.2009 – 31.03.2012 Wien, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 26.04.2010, <>.
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