Commentary on the Essay of Joseph Hodge

This post is part of a roundtable discussion on two historiographic articles by Joseph Hodge published in recent issues of Humanity. For more about the roundtable and all currently available posts please see this page.

Joseph Hodge offers us a richly detailed analysis of the making of a new academic subfield, anthropological and historical studies of development. Students will be mining his footnotes for years to come, and they will appreciate the intelligent—and sometimes severe—critiques he presents of the literature whose influence he has made clear. Development is a future-oriented approach to the world, and in exploring the futures in the minds of people in the past, Hodge presents a powerful argument for thinking about the consequences of actions, intended or unintended, positive or negative.

This is an essay about people who study development as an historical question; it is not itself a history of development ideas or actions. That is a legitimate way to define the parameters of an essay, but it has its costs. What gets lost is the timing of the very process that is Hodge’s focus, the opening up of a world-wide debate over the nature of poverty and inequality and the possibilities for coordinated action against them. The pioneers of development theories and practices were themselves, by and large, engaged and critical intellectuals, and reflection on development as a concept began even as theories and projects were first being proposed.

The need for a longer term perspective is best illustrated by two surprising omissions from an otherwise comprehensive account. There is only mention in passing—and no engagement with the significance—of two of the most important and influential figures in the history of development, W. Arthur Lewis and Raul Prebisch. Lewis was from the late 1930s thinking critically about the domain of he was pioneering. He is the subject of a fine biography by Robert Tignor that goes unmentioned here.[1] Lewis, born in the British West Indies and one of few people of color in the field, first attracted public attention for polemical pamphlets he wrote for the Fabian Colonial Society, attacking British colonialism in the West Indies.[2] As an economist, he ran into the profession’s establishment, which insisted that there was only one way to do economics and development had no place in it. By the mid-1950s, Lewis’s position had become the more influential (and he eventually won the Nobel Prize), but it was never undisputed, witness the defense of market orthodoxy over many years, beginning in 1954, by P. T. Bauer.[3] There is a double significance of Lewis’ early career to the history of development: first, its linkage to the crisis of colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, when people like Lewis denounced the colonial regime for maintaining colonized people in poverty and the regime tried to reposition itself as the initiator of development, second, the conflict over what is orthodoxy in economics began early and continues to the present. Prebisch is relevant here too, for, beginning in the late 1940s and in conjunction with the Economic Commission for Latin America, he challenged the win-win conception of development, arguing that the long-term trend, largely because of terms of trade, was for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. These kinds of debates are fundamental to the history of development. Hodge does point—with notable omissions—to recent scholarship on the colonial origins of development, the uneven record of such initiatives, and debates over policy, but not until well into the second of the two parts of his article, and he does not give us a sense of the intellectual breakthrough that began with the work of Lewis, Prebisch, and others in the 1940s.

Periodization is a dangerous business. Hodge begins his essay in 1992, with a quotation from Wolfgang Sachs to the effect that development is a “defunct idea,” no longer relevant to “historical conditions.” Sachs reflected a line that had developed in the 1980s that development represented an unwanted modernity imposed by the “West” on people who had their own ways of being. Development’s death soon proved ephemeral. Within a few years, economists and activists, including some who had for a time been willing to leave progress to the market, were formulating new, interventionist development plans for the new millennium. Others are still calling for development’s demise. But the critics of the 1980s and 1990s, left and right, missed a basic point. As long as there are people who lack piped water, enough food to eat, and a sense of possibility for the future, and as long as the invisible hand of the market or local social movements do not provide such resources, people who are poor and people who care about the poor will promote efforts—for better or worse—to confront the situation.

Hodge correctly observes (Part 1, 436-37) that the right and left critiques of development share a common tendency to treat abstractions as causes and to miss the social and political processes that actually shape action. But the relationship of the two viewpoints is not symmetrical. The anti-development bandwagon—Wolfgang Sachs, Arturo Escobar and others—were scholars whose influence beyond the university was close to nil. The miracle-of-the-market argument had money and power behind it. Some of it was a reaction to the mitigated results of past initiatives—something that has been discussed all along within development circles—and part of it, after the economic crisis of the late 1970s, was less a desire to find a better way to help poor countries than an explanation of why it was legitimate to write off those places, to tell them that they should pay their debts, cut whatever services could not be paid for with internal resources, and expect little from the rest of the world. This was an argument with consequences.[4]

In the second part of his essay, Hodge analyzes skillfully contributions to the anthropological and historical literature, but his sense of timing is unconvincing. He claims that there was a major shift in the scholarship on development after September 11, 2001. He isn’t particularly clear about why this should be so, since he had earlier made a (better) case for new initiatives in the 1980s and 1990s, but the argument seems to be mediated through the concept of empire, giving rise to contention over whether government initiatives coming from the wealthy and powerful parts of the world were a new form of imperialism and that past initiatives can be interpreted in relation to a longer-term history of arrogant, imperialist interventionism—hence need for the study of “development as history” (Part 2, 129). He quickly has to backtrack, since much of the literature that reflects imperial arrogance—by Samuel Huntington and Robert Kaplan for instance—dates to the 1990s, so he has to contend that 9-11 tended to “confirm” such arguments or gave “added urgency” to the study of empires (Part 2, 127, 128). The literature on empire that followed 9-11 was actually a flash in the pan, and it was really a post 2003 literature, a reaction to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. For a segment of the left, “empire” was an epithet, in itself an effective way to denounce Bush’s actions. A smaller faction on the right–but better connected to the seats of power—insisted that the US should, indeed, act like an empire. Within a couple of years, both arguments lost their resonance: the US had proved that occupying one pathetic country—let alone colonizing the world—was more than its capabilities and will power could sustain. What we are left with is a growing field in the study of both empire and development, but with much deeper roots than a reaction to the events of 2001.

When Hodge tries to cite post-2001, literature many of his citations actually point to projects that began much earlier. This is true of two collective projects I participated in, which he generously cites. Both were published in 1997 and both projects began in the 1980s, with already a substantial base on existing scholarship on which to draw.[5] Or, to take an example that Hodge discusses of detailed historical research on a particular development initiative, Monica van Beusekom’s excellent Negotiating Development: African Farmers and Colonial Experts at the Office du Niger, 1920-1960,[6] we see a book published in 2002, but following upon articles published in 1997 and 2000 and a co-edited compilation from 2000–in short hers is another quintessentially 1990s project. Hodge falls for what I have elsewhere called the “epochal fallacy,” the tendency to see history as a succession of distinct eras and to underestimate not so much the continuity of processes as the persistence of ongoing and unresolved debates.[7]

That doesn’t mean one cannot look for break points, in historiography as much as in political or economic history. Hodge has a weak case for 2001, a better one for the 1980s, but his case for the rise of critical approaches to development is weakened by his decision not to address substantively the intellectuals of the 1940s who made development into a field of inquiry in the first place.

Although it takes him time to get there, Hodge recognizes the breakthrough of the 1940s in a political sense: the British Colonial Development and Welfare Act for the first time provided money from the British taxpayer for the explicitly stated purpose of improving the welfare of colonial subjects. The French government, which like the British had earlier rejected such programs, followed suit in 1946. Hodge rightly notes that these innovations built on prior developments in thought and action; development has a deeper history, in a chronological sense, than the post-war years. His essay brings out recent research on the complexities of development initiatives in the 1950s through the 1970s. It was easy to conclude in the 1980s that the “development era” that began in the 1940s had come to an end, more the victim of the IMF and the World Bank than of scholars whose mission was “critique.” But that was a temporary eclipse, and while post-2000 developmentalism isn’t the same as pre-1980 developmentalism, the basic tensions over approaches and uncertainties over consequences persist. There will be more studies that illuminate the complexities of the past and agonize over possibilities of the future. There will be assertions that one plan or another has brought real progress, and there will be predictions that such gains do not correspond to long-term structural change. One of the virtues of Hodge’s text is to make clear that there are more than two ways of thinking about development, and the accomplishments, limitations, and consequences of development initiatives are more complicated than a good/bad dichotomy. Hodge appreciates the difference been scholarship that is sensitive to context and complexity and scholarship that is not, and he has laid out a pathway to thinking clearly about an issue that will be with us for a long time.


[1].Robert Tignor, W. Arthur Lewis and the Birth of Development Economics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). On Prebisch, see Edgar Dosman, the Life and Times of Raúl Prebisch, 1901-1986 (Montreal: McGill University Press, 2008) as well as numerous studies on economic thought and policies in Latin America. Another curious omission from Hodge’s essay is the biography of a major figure whom he does discuss, Jeremy Adelman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[2].W. Arthur Lewis, Labour in the West Indies (London: Fabian Society, 1939).

[3].P. T. Bauer, West African Trade: A Study of Competition, Oligopoly and Monopoly in a Changing Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954), idem., Dissent on Development (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1971).

[4].Compare William Easterly’s diatribe against foreign aid to Jeffrey Sachs’ argument for development aid. William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (New York: Penguin, 2006); Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (New York: Penguin, 2005).

[5].Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper, eds., Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Frederick Cooper, International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays in the History and Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). The first book drew on earlier work of Talal Asad, Barney Cohen, John and Jean Comaroff, and others, the second on many publications from the 1980s and before cited in Hodge’s endnotes.

[6].Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[7].Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 17.

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About Frederick Cooper

Professor of history at New York University and a specialist in the history of Africa, colonization, decolonization, and empire more generally. He is the author of a trilogy of books on labor and society in East Africa and more recently of Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge, 1996); Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present (Cambridge, 2002); and Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (California, 2005). He is also co-author, with Jane Burbank, of Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, 2010). He is currently writing about citizenship in France and French Africa between 1945 and 1960.