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What “Development” Does to Work*

  • Benedetta Rossi (a1)


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).



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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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1. Miers, Sue and Roberts, Richard, The End of Slavery in Africa (Madison, 1988); Miers, Sue, Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem (Oxford, 2003); Klein, Martin and Miers, Sue, Slavery and Colonial Rule in Africa (London, 1999); Klein, Martin, Slavery and Colonial Rule in French West Africa (Cambridge, 1998).

2. These themes are addressed by Frederick Cooper in several of his publications, most thoroughly, in Cooper, Frederick, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge, 1996), see especially 110–70. See also Monica van Beusekom and Dorothy Hodgson's Introduction in a special issue of the Journal of African History; Lessons Learned? Development Experiences in the Late Colonial Period,” ed. van Beusekom, Monica and Hodgson, Dorothy, The Journal of African History 41 (2000): 2933 .

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), 134–51.

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); 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): 762–68; see also Smith, Brian H., ed., More Than Altruism: The Politics of Private Foreign Aid (Princeton, 1990).

5. Ferguson, James suggested that the entrenchment of state power is the principal structural side-effect of “development” in his The Antipolitics Machine: ‘Development’, Depoliticisation, and Bureaucratic State Power in Lesotho (Minneapolis, 1990), 255. Mark Duffield sees aid an essentially political form of global governance, Duffield, Mark, “Social Reconstruction and the Radicalization of Development: Aid as a Relation of Global Liberal Governance,” Development and Change 33 (2002): 1049–71. Tania Murray Li addressed similar questions but argues that attributing responsibility for the hegemony and dispossession that results from development intervention is far from straightforward: Li, Tania Murray, “Revisiting the Will to Improve,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100 (2010): 233–35.

6. See Li, Tania Murray, The Will to Improve (Durham, NC, 2007) 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.

7. See Maul, Daniel Roger, “The International Labor Organization and the Struggle Against Forced Labour from 1919 to the Present,” Labor History 48 (2007): 477500 ; Maul, Daniel Roger, Human Rights, Development and Decolonization. The International Labour Organization, 1940–70 (Geneva, 2012); Rossi, Benedetta, “Periodizing the End of Slavery: Colonial Law, the League of Nations, and Slave Resistance in the Nigerien Sahel, 1920s–1930s,” Annales 72 (2017), forthcoming.

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 . 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): 139–67. 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).

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): 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.

17. Guthrie, Zachary Kagan, “Introduction: Histories of Mobility, Histories of Labor, Histories of Africa,” African Economic History 44 (2016): 117 ; Rossi, Benedetta, “Migration and Emancipation in West Africa's Labour History: The Missing Links,” Slavery and Abolition 35 (2014): 2346 .

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); van Beusekom, Negotiating Development; Porter, Doug, Allen, Bryant, and Thompson, Gaye, Development in Practice: Paved with Good Intentions (London, 1991). 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): 1341–58.

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), 368–76.

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): 429–63 and Hodge, Joseph, “Writing the History of Development (Part 2: Longer, Deeper, Wider),” Humanity 7 (2016): 125–74. 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). 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 .

27. Austin, Gareth, “Resources, Techniques, and Strategies South of the Sahara: Revising the Factor Endowments Perspective on African Economic Development, 1500–2000,” Economic History Review 61 (2008): 587624 , here 588.

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 , 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 , here 1–2.

29. Escobar, Arturo, Encountering Development: the Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, NJ, 1995), 9.

30. Esteva, Gustavo, “Development”, in The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, Wolfgang Sachs, ed. (London, 1993), 625 ; Crush, Jonathan, ed., Power of Development (London, 1995); Mitchell, Timothy, Rule of Experts, Egypt, Technopolitics, Modernity (Berkeley, 2002).

31. See Chang, Ha-Joon, Bad Samaritans: The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations and the Threat to Global Prosperity. (London, 2008); Ziai, Aram, “The Discourse of ‘Development’ and Why the Concept Should be Abandoned,” Development in Practice 23 (2013): 123–36.

32. Helleiner, Eric, Forgotten Foundations of Bretton Woods: International Development and the Making of the Postwar Order (Ithaca, NY, 2014): 141.

33. This point has been illustrated in a large number of regional and country-specific studies. See, for example, Bloom, Peter, Miescher, Stephan, and Manuh, Takyiwaa, eds., Modernization as Spectacle in Africa (Bloomington, 2014); Miescher, Stephan, “Building the City of the Future: Visions and Experiences of Modernity in Ghana's Akosombo Township,” Journal of African History 53 (2012): 367–90; Hunter, Emma, “A History of Maendeleo: The Concept of ‘Development’ in Tanganyika's Late Colonial Public Sphere,” in Developing Africa: Concepts and Practices in Twentieth-Century Colonialism, ed. Hodge, Joseph et al. (New York, 2014), 87107 ; Schneider, Leander, Government of Development: Peasants and Politicians in Postcolonial Tanzania (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014); Laron, Guy, Origins of the Suez Crisis: Postwar Development Diplomacy and the Struggle over Third World Industrialization, 1945–1956 (Baltimore, MD, 2013).

34. Bayart, Jean-Francois, “Africa in the world: a strategy of extraversion,” African Affairs 99 (2000): 217–67.

35. Bierschenk, Thomas, Chauveau, Jean-Pierre, and de Sardan, Jean-Pierre Olivier, eds., Courtiers en Développement : Les Villages Africains en Quête de Projets (Paris, 2000); Lewis, David and Mosse, David, eds., Development Brokers and Translators (London, 2006); van Beusekom, Negotiating Development.

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 .

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

39. Hopkins, Antony, “The ‘New International Economic Order’ in the Nineteenth Century: Britain's First Development Plan for Africa,” in From Slave Trade to “Legitimate” Commerce: the Commercial Transition in Nineteenth Century West Africa, Robin Law, ed. (Cambridge, 1995), 240–64.

40. Hodge, Joseph, Triumph of the Expert: Agrarian Doctrines of Development and the Legacies of British Colonialism (Athens, OH, 2007).

41. Law, Robin, Schwarz, Suzanne, and Strickrodt, Silke, eds., Commercial Agriculture, the Slave Trade, and Slavery in Atlantic Africa (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2013).

42. Cooper, Frederick, “Modernizing bureaucrats, backward Africans, and the development concept,” in International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge, Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard, eds. (Berkeley, 1997), 6492 , here 70.

43. Sluga, Glenda and Clavin, Patricia, eds., Internationalisms: A Twentieth Century History (Cambridge, 2017); see also Burke, Roland, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia, 2010); Grant, Kevin, Levine, Philippa, and Trentmann, Frank, eds., Beyond Sovereignty: Britain, Empire and Transnationalism, c. 1880–1950, (London, 2007). 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 .

44. See Price, Bayard, The Marshall Plan and Its Meaning (Ithaca, NY, 1955), 367–93; Wood, Robert, From Marshall Plan to Debt Crisis: Foreign Aid and Development Choices in the World Economy (Berkeley, 1986); Raffer, Kunibert and Singer, Hans, The Foreign Aid Business. Economic Assistance and Development Cooperation (Cheltenham, 1996); Westad, Odd Arne, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, 2007). David Ekbladh suggests that the United States’ involvement in foreign aid started in the 1930s crisis and before the Point Four Program, Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order (Princeton, NJ, 2010).

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 .

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), 243–59; Rossi, Benedetta, From Slavery to Aid: Politics, Labour and Ecology in the Nigerien Sahel, 1800–2000 (Cambridge, 2015), 310–13. See also Apthorpe, Raymond and Gasper, Des, eds., Arguing Development Policy: Frames and Discourses (London, 1996).

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 .

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

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 ; Bourdieu, Pierre, Language and Symbolic Power (London, 1992).

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 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 . 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).

* 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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What “Development” Does to Work*

  • Benedetta Rossi (a1)


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