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How the British Invented “Development” to Keep the Empire and Substitute for Racism

During the early years of World War II, Japan won major victories (such as the capture of Singapore) against the British and threatened India. Japanese propaganda pointed to British racism and offered themselves as the defenders of non-white peoples. The British feared that non-white people in the colonies might side with the Japanese rather than their colonial masters. The British had to come up with a new justification for colonial rule to replace the unpopular and increasingly implausible idea that they were a superior race destined to rule inferior races. In response, they invented the concept of economic development.

This story is told in an undeservedly obscure book by Suke Wolton, 2000, Lord Hailey, the Colonial Office, and the Politics of Race and Empire in the Second World War, (I have this thing for obscure development history books; this one is ranked #4,399,430 on Amazon)

The Japanese charge of British racism was certainly correct. They were so racist they thought even nonwhites acknowledged their own inferiority, like when Julian Huxley referred to the natives’ “childlike belief in the white as an inherently superior being.” After World War I, the Americans and British shot down a League of Nations resolution for Racial Equality proposed by the Japanese. The Colonial Office said in 1939 “most Africans are still savages.”

But during the dark days when the British were losing World War II, the racism was no longer allowed to be so explicit. The Labor Minister in 1941 banned the N word for Africans and “coolies” for Indians. The Colonial Office further told the BBC that the N-word should be “discouraged” on the radio. A further breakthrough caused the BBC to drop the word “native.”

But something more positive was needed to put the Empire in a good light. A long-time colonial official, Lord Hailey came up with the idea in 1941 of redefining the Empire’s mission as “promotion of native welfare.” (I guess he didn’t get the BBC memo about “native.”) And he argued the colonies could only develop with Britain’s help (sound familiar?) In short, Hailey said:

A new conception of our relationship…may emerge as part of the movement for the betterment of the backward peoples of the world, which stands in the forefront of every enlightened programme for …postwar conditions.

To repress independence movements, however, Hailey made a distinction between political development and economic development: “Political liberties are meaningless unless they can be built on a better foundation of social and economic progress.” (A line that autocrats have been using ever since.) The Colonial Office thought many colonies “little removed from their primitive state,” so “they will probably not be fit for complete independence for centuries.”

Of course, changing the language from racist to economic development did not mean racism suddenly disappeared. As Wolton shows, “the white Western elites still believed in their fundamental superiority.” In the end, Wolton says, “The major powers would continue to be able to determine the future of the colonial territories – only this time the source of their legitimacy was based less on racial difference and more on their new role as protector and developmental economist.” After the war, even more officials went out to the Empire in what became known as the “second colonial occupation.”

Why does this history matter today? After all, the Empire fell apart much sooner than expected, and racism did diminish a lot over time. And I do NOT mean to imply guilt by association for development as imperialist and racist; there are many theories of development and many who work on development (including many from developing countries themselves) that have nothing to do with imperialism and racism.

But I think the origin of development as cover for imperialism and racism did have toxic legacies for some. First, it meant that the concept of development was determined to fit a propaganda imperative; it was NOT a breakthrough in thought by economists. Second, it followed that development from the beginning would stress the central role of Western aid to help the helpless natives (which shows up in the early development theories like the “poverty trap” and the “Big Push,” and the lack of interest in local entrepreneurs and market incentives). Third, the paternalism was so extreme at the beginning that it would last for a long time – I still think it is widespread today, especially after today’s comeback of the early development ideas in some parts of the aid system. And this history also seems strangely relevant with today’s “humanitarian” nouveau-imperialism to invade and fix “failed states” like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Membership in the development elites is far more diverse than in Lord Hailey’s time, but I fear that, to use Wolton’s words, “in the end, the elites still believe in their fundamental superiority.”

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  1. LorenzofromOz wrote:

    I am at the disadvantage of not having read the book, but it sounds like crap to me.

    First of all, native welfare had long been a justifying principle of British rule. From abolishing slavery to India’s Dominion status, which was well established in the 1930s.

    Secondly, racism developed as a justification of empire, not the cause of it. Even there, it was much more a middle class principle than an aristocratic or mercantile one. (The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 made a difference for example, because it meant that lost of British women could get to India and wanted to stop British men in India marrying Indian wives: it had been common and accepted for members of the British elite in India to marry high status Muslim or Brahmin women, but the white women wanted to monopolise potential British husbands.)

    After all, one can make an argument that a major reason for the American Revolution was to get rid of the pesky British Crown insistence that treaties with American Indians should be honoured.

    That being said, there are issues in the origins of the notion of development.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 2:05 am | Permalink
  2. Nwabu wrote:

    Development is definitely self-serving and the DFID, USAID, UN and World Bank should publish just how much of their budgets go straight back to the home country via their consultants, equipment and products. It is at least more than 60%

    But despite it all there is always a light that shines through all the self-adulation. Life expectancies improved across the developing world thanks to “development”. The british brought in better educational standards than what the “natives” were used to (I myself am a product of the british educational system and I can probably read and write better than someone from east or south london). So there was some good that came through.

    I look forward to what the teenage American empire will come up with to showcase their power to all the underprivileged everywhere. Dropping rice bags over refugees in Somalia or Darfur just doesnt cut it anymore. We need McDonalds and KFC to open up in every nation in Afria and to have USAID rebate stickers on their big macs and chicken buckets.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 2:14 am | Permalink
  3. Connerie wrote:

    Nwabu “can probably read and write better than someone from east or south london.” I’m puzzled. Surely someone from those dark and backward places is able to capitalise real nouns?

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 3:25 am | Permalink
  4. Giles Smedley wrote:

    Lorenzo from Oz – well said.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 4:00 am | Permalink
  5. Stephen Jones wrote:

    I think Lorenzo from Oz is somewhat shaky over the details. British racism in India, and attacks against miscegenation long pre-date the Suez Canal. They have a lot to do with the growth of Puritanism in England in the 1830s, a period when the young were embarrassed by the temperate language of their elders.

    The idea of the British being good for the natives goes back to Kipling, and it’s strange Easterly, who wrote a book entitled ‘The White Man’s Burden’ seems to have ignored it.

    The untold story of course is of the native bureaucrats. They were always embarrassed by suggestions of western superiority but were still imbued with the idea that they were a different type of humanity to the poor natives they controlled, and whom they considered quite incapable of deciding themselves. Luckily socialism came along and allowed them to combine their dirigiste tendencies with political correctness.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 7:31 am | Permalink
  6. Bill Easterly wrote:

    To LorenzofromOz and Stephen Jones:

    Yes of course, the idea of the British being good for “native welfare” had been around for a long time. However, this was only one of many reasons offered to justify the empire, colonies were required to be self-supporting, and “native welfare” was more about suppressing tribal conflict and some humanitarian relief of disease and famine.

    The idea that the purpose of the Empire was to promote “development” of the whole colony out of poverty and into prosperity (i.e. something that looked like England) was new at the time of WWII.

    best, Bill

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 7:48 am | Permalink
  7. Joe wrote:


    Facetiousness and arrogance do not an argument win.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  8. SS wrote:

    Dr. Easterly says:

    “the paternalism was so extreme at the beginning that it would last for a long time –”

    Couldn’t agree more, excellent piece. Add the structural relations of dependancy and raw material trade and you have the whole unsavory picture of what some hopeful souls still sincerely wish to call development.


    Posted September 16, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  9. Tucker wrote:

    Good to see this reminder, and the historical legacy of the origins of colonial planned development are remembered pretty well in some places. But it might also be the case that the post-war French colonial ‘development’ policies had more to do with creating that memory and fostering underdevelopment theory than the British ones. Well that and Cold War development policy, you should follow up about those.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  10. Jim wrote:

    Did the British ‘invent’ development during WWII? I’m not convinced. Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant (written in 1919) states:

    “To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the States which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation and that securities for the performance of this trust should be embodied in this Covenant.

    The best method of giving practical effect to this principle is that the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility, and who are willing to accept it, and that this tutelage should be exercised by them as Mandatories on behalf of the League.

    The character of the mandate must differ according to the stage of the development of the people, the geographical situation of the territory, its economic conditions and other similar circumstances.”

    So ‘development’ was clearly invented some time earlier than WWII and independence was at least implicitly supposed to be the aim.

    The wider argument you seem to be making is that the Brits dreamed up ‘development’ only in order to undermine Japanese accusations of racism. But if that was so, why didn’t they just drop any such talk after the war? In fact, their planning for staged de-colonisation was greatly intensified after the war (e.g. with the 1947 government committee report). Interestingly they proposed trying to improve local government institutions first, thereby trying to impose a bottom-up approach from the top down. As we know it all got over-taken by events anyway.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  11. Why do poor people pay exorbitant rates of interest?

    I found this post on Chris Blattman’s blog about a recent paper by Abhijit Banerjee and Sendhil Mullainathan looking at …

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  12. Subsequent events demonstrate that the British really were superior: When the British left, it became apparent that many colonies were “but little removed from their primitive state”

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  13. Jon Custer wrote:

    @Nwabu: I don’t know about DFID but USAID considers the fact that most of their budget is spent in the US to be a selling point, at least when reporting to Congress. I recall reading a report c. 2004 where they were quite openly bragging that something like 80% of the budget made its way back to the US economy in one form or another.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  14. LorenzofromOz wrote:

    Stephen Jones

    British racism in India, and attacks against miscegenation long pre-date the Suez Canal. They have a lot to do with the growth of Puritanism in England in the 1830s, a period when the young were embarrassed by the temperate language of their elders.

    I do not think 30 years counts as “long predates”, but I am happy to accept the extra complication, though I was more interested in the patterns of intermarriage.

    The idea of the British being good for the natives goes back to Kipling

    Much earlier than that.

    Bill Easterly

    The idea that the purpose of the Empire was to promote “development” of the whole colony out of poverty and into prosperity (i.e. something that looked like England) was new at the time of WWII.

    I think if you look at the program for India’s Dominion status you will find that is a little overstated.

    Posted September 16, 2009 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  15. hapa wrote:
    Posted September 16, 2009 at 9:37 pm | Permalink
  16. Brian wrote:

    As a side note, any chance that you could post some good books on the current state of international aid and development? Are there any books that discuss ‘parachute and suitcase’ medicine (or other short term, non stustainable operations) and their pitfalls? I think one of the more difficult aspects of aid today is convincing those who believe that since the poor have little anything is better than nothing – which couldn’t be further from the truth! It seems like no matter which way you approach it people are going to feel defensive unless they make the realization themselves.

    thanks in advance!

    Posted September 17, 2009 at 12:00 am | Permalink
  17. gaddeswarup wrote:

    Books like “Signal and Noise” by Brian Larkin indicate that there were divisions in the British Foreign Office about development agendas. More systematic views and programs of devlopment may be due to American foundations:

    Posted September 17, 2009 at 3:42 am | Permalink
  18. Stephen Jones wrote:

    The idea that the purpose of the Empire was to promote “development” of the whole colony out of poverty and into prosperity (i.e. something that looked like England) was new at the time of WWII.

    Sorry, Bill, but I’m dubious. The idea of the west providing technology led progress was made manifest in the Great Exhibition of 1851. I suggest a reading of that fine novel, The Siege of Krishnapur

    Posted September 17, 2009 at 8:08 am | Permalink
  19. Mari wrote:

    Easterly, do you know the work of Raul Prebisch or Celso Furtado? If you do, what are your thoughts about their take on poverty gap?

    Posted September 17, 2009 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  20. JR Villaveces wrote:

    Dr. Easterly,

    I found your blog interesting, however I was unconvinced by some of the arguments made in the book that ‘development’ originated with WWII. I think that you are getting at something by pointing at ‘failed states’ theory as being imperialistic, although most humanitarian justifications for invasion are currently based on the ‘responsibility to protect’ clause of International Humanitarian Law, which French President Sarkozy among others argues overrides state sovereignty in some cases, ie., Myanmar which refused to accept Bush’s $1 million in US military-delivered aid.

    Best regards,


    Posted September 21, 2009 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  21. pwyll wrote:
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
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