An Australian development advisor in the USSR: Eleanor Hinder

HinderOriginally published by the UN History project, Feb. 2017.

In 1955, a team of government officials from India toured the Soviet Union, examining everything from coal mining to civil aviation. Distinctive in their group photograph was Australian Eleanor Hinder, the only woman and the only non-Indian on the mission. She is identified with a ruled indicator line in pencil on this photograph of the group posed in front of the Kakhova Dam construction site, part of the great Donbass industrial complex taking shape in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The photo comes from the official trip report submitted by the United Nations Technical Assistance Administration, sponsor of the study tour. The pencil was wielded by Viola Smith, Hinder’s partner in life and love, on the copy of the report housed in Hinder’s personal papers. The image draws together several threads: the way the United Nations bridged development and diplomacy in its technical assistance work; the role of countries seen as less central in postwar international politics; and the occasional visibility of key actors like Hinder whose names are seldom recalled when stories of international politics are penned.

The UN was founded with a strong Security Council partly in order to avoid the perceived security failures of its predecessor, the League of Nations. In the event, the Security Council’s permanent members failed to work together. Unable to act as it wished on peace and security, the UN found a more satisfying global mission in economic development. In the early years of the 1950s, this took the form of technical assistance, a scheme for wealthier and more technically advanced countries to send experts to less developed countries, where they would share their knowledge and skills. It established a Technical Assistance Administration within the UN Secretariat under the leadership of Canadian administrator and diplomat Hugh Keenleyside.

But technical assistance, like so much of the UN’s work, was caught up in the global Cold War. The USSR initially rejected technical assistance as a tool of American imperialism – no surprise, since technical assistance was first mooted as “point four” of US president Harry Truman’s foreign policy agenda. But in 1953, the USSR offered to contribute the equivalent of a million American dollars. Soviet officials insisted that this money would be entirely in unconvertible roubles, causing the United States and its allies to block the offer. In response, Keenleyside flew to Moscow and brokered a deal that brought the Soviet Union into the UN technical assistance plan, removing technical assistance at least a little bit from the Cold War.

The next step was to put flesh on the bones of the deal by starting to explore what sorts of help the USSR could offer. India was the first country to be considered as a Soviet aid focus. Although she had just retired, the TAA tapped Eleanor Hinder for the “very important” job of accompanying this group, giving her the title of Ambassador without Portfolio. Six sub-groups in fields from water power development to heavy chemicals crisscrossed the country to great interest, heightened by the parallel arrival of Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Moscow for a state visit.

Hinder’s travelogues, mostly written while in flight with a special ink pen designed to work at high altitudes, reflect her impressed fascination with the new Soviet Union, flushed with the success of its postwar reconstruction and the sense of opportunity after the death of Stalin. Women held positions of authority everywhere, far different from in the West, she wrote. Four thousand women had started building a mighty dam on Ukraine’s Don River during the Second World War and finished soon after the war’s end, launching a heroic tale in which the region now generated 10-million kilowatt-hours of power – and the Soviet Union added 4-million kilowatts more each year. Here was a signature project, featured in the image above.

Development in the USSR, Hinder reported, was pushed forward by popular dedication and hard work and a vast range of specialist institutes. She was especially impressed by great canal in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. The contrast with hardscrabble Afghanistan, its women all clad in burkhas, struck her most of all. “On the Uzbek side – fine strapping women, all of them working it seems, striding along freely.”

In Moscow, Hinder “felt indeed that I was participating in a historic moment, that the sharing of technical knowledge between these two peoples through the United Nations had significance beyond even the great benefits involved in the sharing.” The “wider significance” included the value, for many other countries, of impressions that India’s team would bring back. There was the possible relevance of models for development offered by the constituent republics such as Georgia and Uzbekistan. The chances for Soviet technical assistance, with the UN as channel, were much more favourable in the new Soviet Union of the mid-1950s. And so, Hinder urged Keenleyside, “if we have the wisdom to grasp it, an opportunity is at hand.”

The tour emerged as triumph. The Soviets were happy with the new avenues open to non-communist Asian countries. Indian officials were happy at the new chances to draw on a major new source of aid. And aid officials at the UN were happy that they had opened a new channel for technical assistance and begun to in integrate the Soviet Union into the multilateral technical assistance world. Here was no small accomplishment: the TAA, headed by a Canadian and through the agency of a trip headed by an Australian, was taking steps that might cool global confrontation as well as boost economic development. Hinder, previously TAA bureau chief for Asia, was not given the Ambassador title idly. She was crucial in negotiations and throughout this story acted as both capable aid administrator and canny diplomat.

There was also a more personal side. The photograph of Hinder among the Indian officials is the visible side of this story. The less visible side is told in Viola Smith’s pencil line, carefully indicating Hinder’s position in the photograph. The addition was part of Voila Smith’s stewardship of Hinder’s papers, now in the State Library of New South Wales in Australia. It does not appear, of course, in copies of the report housed in the UN’s own archives in New York.

So who was Eleanor Hinder? She started work as superintendent of welfare at a department store in her native Sydney, then in 1925 moved to Shanghai to run social welfare operations in the International Settlement. There she met American diplomat Viola Smith. Alongside her social welfare work in Shanghai factories, Hinder was named by the League of Nations as Protector of mui tsai, “girl slaves” working in the city. She went on to various posts with the British Foreign Office, UNRRA, and as an advisor on welfare and labour to Burma, Malaya, and Hong Kong, ending up with an OBE awarded by the British government. When Smith returned to the United States after consular and trade posts in Asia, Hinder sought work at the UN. She rose to important roles at the TAA partly because she had expertise in international development, but also partly because her “life-long friend,” as she phrased it, was an American and the couple wanted to keep living together.

The 1955 Indian study tour of the USSR allowed Hinder to retain residency in the United States as a UN ambassador even after her formal retirement. When final retirement came, Smith joined Hinder in Australia. Borders constrained the couple. Both made career choices that sacrificed opportunities in order to be together, even as both could point to impressive careers. The personal and the political intertwined. Hinder was an early proponent of UN official Margaret Anstee’s dictate for women at the UN: “never learn to type.” In common with many visitors to the USSR, she saw Soviet industrial muscle – but she also saw that women workers were as much a part of that as men, a far less common observation. The complex life stories of diplomats like Eleanor Hinder need to be seen to understand the diplomatic events swirling around them. A pencil line on a photograph in an official report can reveal as much as the report itself.

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The pattern of UN technical assistance, 1954

Where did United Nations technical assistance advisors in the early years come from? Where did they go? A comprehensive “experts list” from 1954 provides the data to answer.

The UN created a Technical Assistance Administration (TAA) and started sending out technical assistance advisors in the early 1950s. I’ve written about the TAA’s short, strange history elsewhere. But what nationality were the “experts” chosen to go overseas? Which countries were the darlings of the TAA, receiving the most advisors? The 1954 list helps to answer those questions.

experts-by-nationality

In August 1954, the TAA had 398 experts on its list. Of those, 70 held American nationality. The UK followed with 63 and France stood third, with 49. Canada (23), the Netherlands (22) and Sweden (18) led a large number of other countries. But this is a crude measure. One advisor was listed as “stateless.” One man listed as British was in a long-drawn out process of obtaining Canadian citizenship. Others were dual citizens. What stands out is the domination of Europe and North America, of course, but also a striking diversity within this – no country approached 20%.

Where did they go? The TAA favoured middle-sized countries seen as having good potential for the sort of economic development the TAA appreciated. Some advisors were posted to UN headquarters or regional projects. Of the 352 working in defined countries, the largest group (28) was in Burma, followed by Turkey (25), Bolivia, Indonesia, and Yugoslavia (24 each), and then Iran and Pakistan (21 each).

experts-by-destination-country-1954

While India led the way as the biggest recipient of aid dollars in the 1950s, TAA advisors spread out. (India tried to be a source of experts, especially in Asia, contributing to a pattern in which lower-income countries sent advisors within their region – Latin American and Middle Eastern states sent quite a few advisors to their neighbours.)

In those seven biggest destination countries for TAA advisors, no country was dominant enough in experts to dominate the technical assistance field. The largest national contingent stood at 8 (French advisors in Iran). British in Bolivia, Americans in Turkey, Swedes in Yugoslavia – none over a third in any destination country.

field-and-home-country

The TAA tried to paint itself as diverse. In the range of its advisors’ home and destination countries, it did better than many to reach that goal.

Fish, Cooperatives, Cambodia, Quebec

Somehow, a study of low-level war between Indonesia and Malaysia in the 1960s has led me to reading about the history of fisheries cooperatives in Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula.[1] My first book was a relatively straightforward diplomatic history of Canada’s relations with Indonesia, mostly dealing with the years from 1945 to 1965. My research for it left some (to me, at least) intriguing gaps. A short reference to the “wonderful zealot” Louis Bérubé being brought in as part of Canada’s efforts to defend a Malaysian federation founded in 1963 led me to wonder where this “zealot” came from. Why was a Quebec technical advisor working with Malay fishermen considered to be part of a defence effort? Chasing connections down archival avenues in Ottawa and Rimouski leads to some lessons about Canadian social democracy overseas.

Berube cropped

Image: Louis Berubé, Rapport de Mission d’Enquête au Cambodge, 1956. Université du Québec à Rimouski archives, fonds Louis Bérubé, box 7 (2e versement), dossier 160.

Louis Bérubé was in Malaysia as part of his third Asian posting as a technical advisor. The focus in studies of the history of development, and technical assistance in particular, has been on the United States government trying to re-invent the world in its own image, through modernization theory in particular. That focus is not wrong, of course, but it’s important to see the role of non-American agencies, such as the Commonwealth’s Colombo Plan and the UN’s Technical Assistance Administration, and the ways in which these other agencies differed in their approaches and personnel from the better-financed American technical cooperation programme. A key difference was that the TAA, especially, was dominated not by American New Deal liberals, but by social democrats – many of them Canadians.

Bérubé was one of these men. One Canadian diplomat’s memoir calls him “a wonderful zealot from Quebec [who] preach[ed] the cooperative movement gospel that fishermen could largely control their own destiny if they worked together to catch and market their own produce.”[2] This cooperative gospel was born from Bérubé’s work in the hardscrabble fishing villages of Quebec’s Lower Saint Lawrence and Gaspé regions and then simmered in his fisheries advising career in Asia. In Cambodia, Ceylon, and finally Malaysia, he advocated organizing fishers into co-operatives, creating credit co-operatives that could lend them the capital they needed to escape the clutch of rapacious traders, and capping it with marketing expertise to make sure that fish would find willing buyers, whether domestically or internationally.

Bérubé’s work was to spread the pre-1945 successes of cooperatives in Quebec to the post-1945 global South, and he sold this in Ottawa as the best way to defeat the communist threat. Recommendations painted in some cases as unfair infringements in capitalist markets were reasonable, he convinced many, because poor fishermen (and by implication, others living in poverty) could resist the siren call of communism only if offered the tools of co-operatives.

In making this point, Bérubé hearkened back again and again to his home region. Born in the last years of the nineteenth century in Ste. Anne-de-la-Pocatière, a village in Quebec’s Lower Saint Lawrence region, Louis Bérubé preached the co-operative gospel from an early age, beginning with a successful effort to build a cooperative among fishermen at Cap-des-Rosiers, at the tip of the Gaspé peninsula.

Quebec fishers lacked access to credit and markets, controlled respectively by banks and fish trading companies based in larger cities. So they had to build credit, expand markets, and diversify from salted to fresh and frozen fish in order to up fishermen’s incomes. Bérubé from the 1930s onwards stressed technical training of fishers and cooperative education. One outgrowth of this was the creation in 1938 of the École des Pêcheries at Ste. Anne-de-la-Pocatière, affiliated with Laval University. Bérubé’s experience as the school’s head of economics officials in Ottawa to invite Bérubé to advise on a request for fisheries assistance from Cambodia received in 1955.

Cambodia’s freshwater fisheries had been lucrative in the past, with tax on inland fisheries generating one-ninth of the French colonial state’s revenues. Bérubé’s interest went further: he sought to promote social change in Cambodia through cooperative organization. In his reports on Cambodia, Bérubé was explicit on this point and on the value of the Quebec fisheries cooperative model. And he appealed to the anti-communism that appealed both in Catholic networks in Quebec and in offices in Ottawa. Cambodian fishers, he wrote, were divided between big and small scale. Family fishers were “the smallest of Cambodia’s small people” (petit peuple). They were dominated by ethnic Chinese traders in “the same way, if not worse, than were our own fishermen under the iron hand of the fish companies in the 19th century. Something has to be done, or they will listen to the sing-song of Communist propaganda.”[3]

Bérubé also preached modernization. He ended his final report to the Cambodian government by worrying that it was the “messe de petits pêcheurs familiaux qui paralyse le développement des pêcheries.” They had to be brought swiftly into more modern methods to allow development to go ahead.[4] Poor Cambodian fishermen, he wrote, stood in the same position as had 1840s weavers in the English town of Rochdale, birthplace of the global cooperative movement. They, too, could organize themselves. The thread of cooperatives first spun in Rochdale and picked up around the world, including in Gaspé, was just as applicable in 1950s Cambodia. Cooperative education and organization had succeeded in Quebec, he concluded. “It can do the same here. And it must do it.”[5] Here was a social-democratic vision: cooperative organization as a path towards social justice that at the same time served the twin goals of modernization and anti-communism.

Why does all this matter? Bérubé saw models at home that could be applied in Asia, and preached them as a virtual “gospel” on the other side of the Pacific. Many in Asia welcomed this sort of technical assistance. Berubé’s thoughts, born of a Quebec Catholic social justice tradition, spawned models for Asian contexts. Studies of advisors like him add to the growing sense that Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution was far from inward-looking, but was highly engaged across borders.[6]

[1] Thanks to Sarah Zwierzchowski for research assistance. Berubé’s story comes through in files in Library and Archives Canada files on technical assistance (RG 25, External Affairs, and RG 74, Canadian International Development Agency) and in his own papers housed at the Université du Québec à Rimouski. This study forms part of a future book project entitled Modern Missionaries: Canadian development advisors in Southeast Asia, 1945-65. It draws on a paper presented at the 2015 Canadian Historical Association annual meeting.

[2] Earl Drake, A Stubble-Jumper in Striped Pants, 71.

[3]“Co-operative Organization of Fishermen,” Bérubé’s progress report #3 to Colombo Plan administration in Canada [1956], LAC, RG74, vol. 258, file 36-8C-B10[2].

[4] « Projet de stabilisation et d’expansion du mouvement coopérative chez les pêcheurs du Cambodge, » Bérubé report to Cambodian minister of finance Mau Say, 1 May 1956.

[5] “Co-operative Organization of Fishermen,” Bérubé’s progress report #3 to Colombo Plan administration in Canada [1956]; LAC, RG74, vol. 258, file 36-8C-B10[2].

[6] Demers, Granger, Foisy.