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What “Development” Does to Work*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 November 2017

Benedetta Rossi*
University of Birmingham


This article introduces an Africa-focused special issue showing that the rise of development in its modern form coincided with the demise of the political legitimacy of forced labor. It argues that by mobilizing the idea of development, both colonial and independent African governments were able to continue recruiting unpaid (or underpaid) labor—relabeled as “voluntary participation,” “self-help,” or “human investment” —after the passing of the ILO’s Forced Labor Convention. This introduction consists of two parts: the first section summarizes the main findings of the contributions to the special issue. The second part advances preliminary considerations on the implications of these findings for our assessment of international development “aid.” The conclusion advocates that research on planned development focus not on developers-beneficiaries, but rather on employers-employees. Doing so opens up a renewed research agenda on the consequences of “aid” both for development workers (those formally employed by one of the many development institutions) and for so-called beneficiaries (those whose participation in development is represented as conducive to their own good).

Developmentalism, Labor, and the Slow Death of Slavery in Twentieth Century Africa
Copyright © International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc. 2017 

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I would like to thank the journal editors, anonymous reviewers, and the authors of articles in this issue for their helpful and constructive comments. I am particularly grateful to Alex Voorhoeve for his insightful comments on an earlier version of this article. All remaining shortcomings are entirely my own.



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3. The full text of the ILO's Forced Labor Convention (Co29) can be found at the following link (checked and working on July 8, 2017): Amongst the countries discussed in this special issue, Co29 was adopted by the ILO on June 28, 1930, and ratified by Liberia on May 1, 1931, Britain on June 3, 1931, Italy on June 18, 1934, France on June 24, 1937, and Portugal on June 26, 1956. Following the end of colonial rule, it was ratified by Ghana on May 20, 1957, the Democratic Republic of the Congo on September 20, 1960, Somalia November 18, 1960, Niger on February 27, 1961, Tanzania on January 30, 1962, and Mozambique on June 16, 2003. For a discussion of the circumstances in which the Convention was developed, see Miers, Suzanne, Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem (Walnut Creek, CA, Altamira, 2003), 134–51Google Scholar.

4. The expression “politics of altruism” is used differently by different authors, see Lissner, Jørgen, The Politics of Altruism: A Study of the Political Behaviour of Voluntary Development Agencies (Geneva, 1977)Google Scholar; Sullivan, Robert, “The Politics of Altruism: an Introduction To the Food-for-Peace Partnership Between the United States Government and Voluntary Relief Agencies,” Political Research Quarterly, 23 (1970): 762–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Smith, Brian H., ed., More Than Altruism: The Politics of Private Foreign Aid (Princeton, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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6. See Li, Tania Murray, The Will to Improve (Durham, NC, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar for a classic discussion of the application of this principle in the history of South-East Asia. For a discussion of how the ideology of the free gift shapes relations between donors and NGOs, see Roderick Stirrat and Heiko Henkel, “The Development Gift: The Problem of Reciprocity in the NGO World,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 554 (1997): 66–80.

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8. For a colonial anthropological study of the ambiguities of the village chiefs’ position caught between allegiance to his community and the demands of the colonial administration, see Gluckman, Max, Mitchell, J. and Barnes, J., “The Village Headman in British Central Africa,” Africa 19 (1949): 89106 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a more recent study of the role of chiefs as intermediary between development donors and local communities, see de Sardan, Jean Pierre Olivier, “L'espace public introuvable: Chefs et projets dans les villages nigériens,” Revue Tiers Monde 157 (1999): 139–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar. These anthropological studies reveal the ambiguities inherent in the chiefs’ role as intermediary between the villagers and the colonial or national administration. However, by using the term “contractor” in this paragraph I highlight that from the perspective of donors, chiefs could be used, and were used, to outsource coercive methods in the recruitment of workers who were not free to withdraw; for a study of contract labor in Africa see Little, Peter and Watts, Michael, eds., Living Under Contract: Contract Farming and Agrarian Transformation in Sub-Saharan Africa (Madison, WI, 1994)Google Scholar.

9. Wiemers in this issue.

10. Ibid.

11. Kagan Guthrie in this issue.

12. Ibid.

13. McMahon in this issue.

14. Ibid.

15. See for example, van Beusekom, Monica, Negotiating Development: African Farmers and Colonial Experts at the Office du Niger, 1920–1960 (Portsmouth, NS, 2002)Google Scholar: xxx.

16. Some of the developmental activities promoted by colonial and post-colonial states can be seen as directed toward the building and maintenance of “public goods” and raising problems of collective action. In these circumstances states normally establish forms of coerced contribution either through taxes in cash or through taxes in labor (the “labor tax”). Unwillingness to volunteer is not necessarily evidence that the goods in question were not worth the effort to the local population. But the point here is that this question was rarely posed in relation to “development” interventions. Debates on the viability of the labor tax (or of prestations in French Africa) preceded the introduction of the development discourse. The problem is precisely that developmentalism made it possible to elude these debates altogether: “participation in development” was not conceived of as work, the relative usefulness and value of which could be measured according to different criteria, e.g., in terms of opportunity cost to the workers, salary scales in the public sector, collective action problems, or fiscal burden imposable to a certain population or group.

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18. Many colonial and post-colonial development schemes required the resettlement of local groups either away from the building sites of major development infrastructure, or into development schemes that required more labor than was available locally. The following studies detail forced evictions and resettlements: Isaacman, Allen and Isaacman, Barbara, Dams, Displacement, and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965–2007 (Athens, OH, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; van Beusekom, Negotiating Development; Porter, Doug, Allen, Bryant, and Thompson, Gaye, Development in Practice: Paved with Good Intentions (London, 1991)Google Scholar. In addition to positive actions to force groups to move in the name of development, some authors have highlighted the negative attitude of development discourse toward autonomous migration, which is often seen as a consequence of development failure to allow people to stay put rather than be mobile. See for example Bakewell, Oliver, “‘Keeping Them in Their Place’: the ambivalent relationship between development and migration in Africa,” Third World Quarterly 29 (2008): 1341–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19. Whyte in this issue.

20. Wiemers in this issue.

21. Loffman in this issue.

22. Urbano in this issue.

23. In 1948, the racial discrimination and forced labor that continued to characterize French colonial recruitment and labor policies were highlighted in a report written by the General Labor Confederation (Confederation Generale de Travail) which listed a range of concrete examples of such discriminatory and exploitative practices. An extract of this report is published as Discriminations Raciales et Travail Forcé dans les Territoires d'Outre Mer,” in Le Travail en Afrique Noire, ed. Balandier, Georges and Dadié, Bernard (Paris, 1952), 368–76Google Scholar.

24. Charles Fayet, Travail et Colonisation (Paris, 1931), 7. The citation in this quote is from a report written for the French Senate by senator Henry Bérenger for the Commission of Foreign Affairs (ibid, footnote 1).

25. Inspection to Tete District, 1944, Fundo da Inspecção dos Serviços Administrativos e Negócios Indígenas (ISANI), AHM, as cited by Kagan Guthrie in this issue.

26. For a comprehensive overview of the historiography of development from its origins to the present, see Hodge, Joseph, “On the Historiography of Development (Part 1: The First Wave),” Humanity 6 (2015): 429–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Hodge, Joseph, “Writing the History of Development (Part 2: Longer, Deeper, Wider),” Humanity 7 (2016): 125–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a less up-to-date overview of economic theories of development, see Hunt, Diana, Economic Theories Development: An Analysis of Competing Paradigms (London, 1989)Google Scholar. For a concise critical discussion of debates on development in the social sciences, see Cooper, Frederick and Packard, Randall, “Introduction,” in International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge, ed. Cooper, Frederick and Packard, Randall (Berkeley, 1997), 141 Google Scholar.

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28. Early contributors to this approach, such as Walter Rostow, Arthur Lewis, and Alexander Gerschenkron focused on the state's role in creating and supporting institutions that promote growth. More recent contributors such as Gordon White and Robert Wade talk of the “ideology of “developmentalism” and consider the relation between economic development and state intervention. White, Gordon, “Developmental States and Socialist Industrialization in the Third World,” Journal of Development Studies 21 (1984): 97120 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 97; Whyte, Gordon and Wade, Robert, “Developmental States and Markets in East Asia: An Introduction,” in Developmental States in East Asia, ed. Whyte, Gordon (London, 1988), 129 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, here 1–2.

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36. Frederick Cooper, for example, argued that in spite of its shortcomings development “provided a basis on which the people of impoverished, ex-colonial countries could make claims’. Decolonization,” 470.

37. For a similar approach in relation to non-state humanitarianism, see O'Sullivan, Kevin, Hilton, Matthew, and Fiori, Giuliano, “Humanitarianisms in Context,” European Review of History 23 (2016): 115 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38. Moon, Suzanne, Technology and Ethical Idealism: A History of Development in the Netherlands East Indies (Leiden, 2007)Google Scholar.

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43. Sluga, Glenda and Clavin, Patricia, eds., Internationalisms: A Twentieth Century History (Cambridge, 2017)Google Scholar; see also Burke, Roland, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Grant, Kevin, Levine, Philippa, and Trentmann, Frank, eds., Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, Empire and Transnationalism, c. 1880–1950, (London, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Abou Bamba talks of “triangulation” to highlight the interactions between the US, France, and the Ivory coast in the realization of the Kossou Project, Bamba, Abou, “Triangulating a Modernization Experiment: The United States, France and the Making of the Kossou Project in Central Ivory Coast,” Journal of Modern European History 8 (2010): 6684 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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45. It may be argued that colonial states were not in any way accountable to the societies they ruled, not at least in the modern sense of democratic accountability. But as suzerain governments they were responsible for the financial stability of the territories they ruled and for the management of public works. After World War Two they were increasingly expected to be accountable to the African populations they governed. A lot has been written about citizenship and the accountability of colonial and independent African states to their voters. Here, I only intend to signal that in principle post-independence European donor countries are accountable to European taxpayers, but not in any clear political way to the “beneficiaries” of their “aid.”

46. On accountability (or lack thereof) in the aid sector see Easterly, William in The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and so Little Good (Oxford, 2006), 1315 Google Scholar.

47. Neubert, Dieter, “Le rôle des courtiers locaux dans le système du développement,” in Courtiers en développement, ed. Bierschenk, , Chauveau, , and de Sardan, Olivier (Paris, 2000), 243–59Google Scholar; Rossi, Benedetta, From Slavery to Aid: Politics, Labour and Ecology in the Nigerien Sahel, 1800–2000 (Cambridge, 2015), 310–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Apthorpe, Raymond and Gasper, Des, eds., Arguing Development Policy: Frames and Discourses (London, 1996)Google Scholar.

48. Porter et al., Development in Practice: Paved with Good Intentions.

49. Edelman, Murray, “The Political Language of the Helping Professions,” Politics Society 4 (1974): 295310 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50. See in particular Barchiesi, Franco, Precarious Liberation: Workers, the State and Contested Social Citizenship in Postapartheid South Africa (Scottsville, 2011): 10Google Scholar.

51. Not necessarily their individual advantage, but their class interests, inasmuch as specific labor and political arrangements reproduced the privileges of some and exploitation of others. For a discussion of the connection between power, politics, and the law, see Tomlins, Christopher, “Subordination, Authority, Law: Subjects in Labor History,” International Labor and Working-Class History 47 (1995): 5690 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bourdieu, Pierre, Language and Symbolic Power (London, 1992)Google Scholar.

52. See for example Jones, Sam, Page, John, Shimeles, Abebe, and Tarp, Finn, “Aid Growth and Employment in Africa,” African Development Review 27 (2015): 14 CrossRefGoogle Scholar which introduces a special issue on this theme.

53. Page, , John, , and Shimeles, , Abebe, , “Aid, Employment, and Poverty Reduction in Africa,” African Development Review 27 (2015): 1730 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The OECD's eleventh issue of its yearly African Economic Outlook was focused, too, on promoting youth employment: OECD, African Economic Outlook 2012: Promoting Youth Employment, DOI: (link checked and working on July 15, 2017).

54. See Weiss, Thomas, Humanitarian Business (London, 2013)Google Scholar.