Global and Usable Histories of Development

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.

My sincere thanks to Dr. Hodge for producing this remarkable review essay. It brilliantly captures the simultaneous appeal and challenge of exploring the history of development. As Hodge shows, development has embodied both disruption and creativity, engaging a wide range of historical actors in both aspects of the work within a landscape of uneven and sometimes obscured relations of power. It has always seemed to me that you can’t do justice to the history of the twentieth century without at least trying to grapple with these messy, and ambiguous ideas and practices. At the same time, the scope of it and its slipperiness makes it difficult to grapple with at all. “Development”, despite the number of meanings it has (often simultaneously) held, still hardly seems big enough to capture the diversity of philosophies, strategies, hopes, material outcomes, ethical assumptions, and ways of living in the world that have fallen one way or another under its umbrella. But the endurance and seemingly endless mutability of development in all its imaginative and material forms makes it vital that we collectively keep trying to do so.

I echo Hodge’s call to add more global reach to the history of development. In that vein, I’d like to draw attention to some exciting new work (so new that much of it is as yet unpublished) focusing on the story of Japanese technical aid specialists, many of whom made the transition from colonial official to post-war development expert after World War II. The story of Japanese foreign aid, including war reparations projects, is central to histories of development in both Southeast and East Asia. As Aaron Stephen Moore has shown, this work, like studies of both US and Soviet development programs, must also be understood in the context of Cold War power relations and adds an important set of players and a unique set of international power relations to the history of development.[1] A volume edited by Hiromi Mizuno (still under development) tentatively entitled Engineering Asia: Colonial Technology and Postcolonial Development promises new insights about this understudied topic.

Considering the demographic character, career trajectories and (sometimes, but not always global) circulations of development aid specialists, including engineers, scientists, and project administrators may be another helpful way of tackling global histories of development. As Hodge demonstrates, engineers as mediators between ideal and practice have already gotten meaningful attention in recent histories of development. What should we make of the increasingly globe-trotting work of some of these figures? One of the UN’s postwar ideologies of development was the idea of “the world helping the world” – an experiment in defining forms of diversity among personnel that was meant to guarantee both political neutrality and the appropriateness of technical solutions to development problems.[2] The issue of diversity within the UN points to an uneasiness about the unevenness of power relations within development work, work which had as one of its goals the elimination of certain kinds of inequality. There seems to me to be an opportunity to say more about the emergence of the “development professional” in the context of Cold War and decolonization and in particular about the significance of their movement between state, civil-society, and commercial organizations. What are the imaginings of diversity that shape the development expert? What can the movements and careers of development professionals tell us about contours of power relations in development and the material outcomes of development work?

I’m particularly grateful that Hodge has drawn attention to those who are exploring what history can (and does) mean for development practitioners. This is an area I admit I find challenging to unfold for myself beyond vague suggestions that “building awareness” might be considered itself a sufficient intervention, a position I no longer find entirely tenable. What kinds of “usable pasts” can or should emerge from these complex and often ambiguous histories? And how do we take care to produce stimulating interpretations rather than “grand narratives” which are too apt to be substituted for history by careless scholars rather than as a tools to think about history with? Carefully considering how the nuances and contingencies of the past can be generative of a cautionary and constructive historical consciousness among development practitioners represents a significant, and significantly challenging, responsibility.

[1] Moore, “Japanese Development Consultancies and Postcolonial Power in Southeast Asia: The Case of Burma’s Balu Chaung Hydropower Plant”, East Asian Science, Technology, and Society 8, no. 3(2014) 297-322

[2] Mehos and Moon, “The Uses of Portability: Circulating Experts in the Technopolitics of Cold War and Decolonization” in Entangled geographies : empire and technopolitics in the global Cold War, edited by Gabrielle Hecht, Cambridge Mass:MIT Press, 2011

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