Review: International Development, by Corinna R. Unger

1Final publication: Diplomatica 2 no. 1 (May 2020):  180-82.

International Development: A Postwar History, written by Corinna R. Unger (Bloomsbury, 2018). 232 xi pp.

Review by David Webster

“In historiographical terms, development is a particularly rich field,” Corinna Unger writes in the conclusion to her book on International Development, published in Bloomsbury’s New Approaches to International History series (p. 156). Reading the book, it’s hard to imagine there’s much in that historiography that Unger has failed to read, digest and include in her extensive footnotes. The book is a model for the type. Grounded in a deep familiarity with the secondary literature and offering clear linking insights, Unger has produced an excellent overview of the history of development, with a strong focus on the bulky midsection of the twentieth century, from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Unger, a professor of global and colonial history at the European University Institute, is one of a wave of scholars who have interrogated development’s history as an idea and as a practice. This wave has been heavily European, with a focus on international organizations, on development as a concept, and on aid as a lever. In keeping with this literature, Unger takes a “longue durée” approach that positions development’s “postwar history” as rooted in the colonial and prewar periods and sees its effects in the years that followed – even when many development practicioners and critics did not.

There are many case studies in the new history of development. Unger has provided a much-needed synthesis – not a “grand narrative,” to be sure, but a weaving together of “the different strands of research … in in order to assess the ways in which the history of development is related to historical phenomena like decolonization, the Cold War, regional integration or disintegration, and the North-South divide” (p. 11).

After an introductory chapter laying out the book’s aims and scope, International Development moves to two chapters on early ideas and forerunners of development, then to its central thee chapters on the 1930s-70s boom in development thinking, before offering two shorter chapters on the decline and disintegration of the grand mid-century development models. The conclusion avoids anti-climax by drawing the strands together once again and pointing towards implications of an idea, “development,” that despite its battering remains as powerful as ever.

Development, the first chapter points out, is often about ideas of time, and “progress” from one state of being to another – with the progress read as temporal, a movement towards ever more prosperity. Development is painted as “both a goal and a process” (p. 17), with ideas and expertise at the fore. Colonizers, humanitarians and missionaries all offered early forms of development thought that would echo through the decades to come. So too would showcase projects which equated technology with power and progress, a pattern common to the Soviet Dnieper River, the American Tennessee River, and their overseas echoes.

Having established the importance of late 19th and early 20th century thinking, Unger enters the midcentury years. She resists any notion of new beginnings after the Second World War, rejecting for instance the idea that US president Harry Truman’s call for technical assistance was a departure. Instead, she offers a chapter that sprawls from the 1930s to the 1950s, viewing the period as a unit in development thought. Cooperative imperialism and a rising America (with its rising private foundations) aided the move to institutionalize development, and this started before the war. The idea of planning came to the fore. True, a constellation of new international organizations was born, and moved into the development field in response to the demands of newly independent countries. Yet even the new organizations “did not so much replace older structures as complement them,” Unger argues (p. 68). The new stress on development, Unger argues, was a shift from the effort to maintain colonial rule, towards a competitive campaign to reduce inequalities that would become intertwined with an emerging Cold War and decolonization.

Unger then turns to the goals and efforts of the newly-independent countries themselves, but still retains her stress on the international level, with the UN emerging as a space for voices from the global South to be magnified. “Europe as an image and Europeans as actors” (p. 86) remain central to the story. While the deliberate decentring of the United States is a welcome corrective to much of the work on the history of development, it risks recentring Europe at the cost of Asian, Africa and Latin American actors. Unger paints these actors as able to move more powerful countries to action at times, but also limited in their power to control their own development efforts. The stress is on the international level, on aid as much as on development. And Unger dismisses the any suggestion that aid was altruistic. Rather, “there were very few, if any, instances in which aid was not connected to larger political, economic, ideological or strategic positions” (pp. 97-8).

As development efforts in the 1950s and 1960s failed to produce spectacular results, the stress (and the book’s account) moves to alternative models such as community development – a nebulous concept that attempted to put people at its core, but in doing so may have simply restored the emphasis on Northern-country expertise. A stress on agriculture, health and education began to displace the previous emphasis on infrastructure mega-projects.

The final chapters briefly sketch the rise of challenges to development thought. New actors (China, Middle Eastern donors, and smaller communist countries) entered the field, alongside an ever-increasing number of non-governmental organizations. Developing countries tried to alter the terms of trade and introduce a more just international economic order, challenging the basis of development to date. Women were finally considered as participants in the development process. Yet donors responded to criticism of past development projects with a push for destructive Structural Adjustment Policies as “the concerns of the so-called developing world were overruled by the interests of the industrial world” (p. 145). Unger paints Gro Harlem Brundtland’s famous Commission on Environment and Development less as challenge than as an attempt at synthesis between development proponents and critics through the fuzzy new concept of “sustainable development.” Still, criticisms and debate continued, and do not seem likely to end any time soon.

This book will be invaluable to historians, making the often unseen trends in development thought visible while showing development’s forerunners ad successors more clearly. Both in its sharing of a broad field of new historical studies, and in its insights, International Development makes an impressive and important contribution. At the same time, this is a book that also deserves a wide readership among scholars and practitioners of development and aid. New trends in development theory and practice seem to arrive constantly, but too few show any awareness of what has come before.

Unger ends with a call for historians to “overcome their reluctance to comment on present problems and to become better at translating their expertise into policy advice” (p. 158). This is indeed much-needed. It’s also necessary for policy makers to be willing to hear that advice.

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