The Art of Chameleon Politics: From Colonial Servant to International Development Expert

In 1974, Kenneth Sargent, a former British colonial servant turned United Nations employee, received a prestigious award from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for his services in development work.1 At the award ceremony at the FAO headquarters in Rome, Sargent’s résumé was distributed to delegates. It deliberately glossed over his colonial service. What should we read into this omission? Scholars have described and criticized international development as the old European civilizing mission under new guise, outlasting the formal end of colonialism. In that narrative, development is the Trojan horse that brought colonial science or knowledge—and with it, power and control—back to the Third World.2 Is Sargent a prime example of the Trojan horse metaphor? Was he a disguised agent of empire? A transmitter of colonial knowledge continuing his imperial civilizing mission through the UN?

Historians are beginning to examine the careers of colonial servants like Sargent who later transferred into the myriad venues of international development, pointing to important continuities between the colonial and the international development project.3 In fact, more than half (53 percent) of the British colonial officers surveyed in one study were later employed by international organizations—particularly by the World Bank (17 percent) and the FAO (14 percent). Another study notes that the about one-third of all UN development experts in the 1950s were recruited from European colonial powers.4 The jump from late-colonial officialdom to postcolonial development expert was particularly prevalent among professionals in imperial departments of agriculture, forestry, survey, and veterinary services.5 In that sense, Kenneth Sargent’s postcolonial development career was fairly typical for a British imperial forester.

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