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Roundtable: Empire, Race, Humanitarianism as Contexts, Chronologies and Categories

By Josh Allen - November 27, 2018 (0 comments)

Dr. Simon Jackson (University of Birmingham)

The following blog post is part of “Humanitarianism: continuing the conversation” an occasional series Past & Present is running on its blog, developing and jumping off from the points raised during Past & Present’s recent humanitarianism conversation published online alongside (Past & Present #241).

A round-table debate was held at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Modern and Contemporary History and co-organised by the Institute of Historical Research’s Rethinking Modern Europe seminar, as part of its regular series of ‘roving seminars’ that seek to move the seminar’s activities away from London and into other institutional and intellectual contexts through a variety of partnerships.

The theme in Birmingham was ‘Empire, Race, Humanitarianism,’ responding in part to a recent Past & Present conversation on the theme of history and humanitarianism. This short post presents a synthesis of the debate and some of the key avenues along which the historiographies in question might progress .

Poster advertising event: date, time, black and white early to mid twentieth century image, IHR and Modern and Contemporary research centre logos

Event flyer: image provided by Simon Jackson, 2018

Opening comments by Simon Jackson (Birmingham) set out some initial leads, drawing on the experience of archival research in a family archive in Beirut and on the conceptually challenging role of brokers in the humanitarian relief politics in the Eastern Mediterranean in 1918-1920. More specifically, Jackson raised three main questions.

First, the historiography on humanitarian practice, ideology and intervention is regularly organised around the binary of over-studied, relatively archivally accessible, external and often Western/imperial protagonists on one hand, and understudied, archivally challenging local recipients and resistance in the colonized world or Global South, on the other. But how useful is the binary presentation of these groups, even when this presentation of matters acts as a necessary prompt to seek out more diverse voices and different archives or research strategies? While doing those latter things, should we not also reflect on how the constitution of the line between external donor and local recipient is itself a historically specific object of study quite as much as, or more than, a methodological shorthand?

Second, and related, how should historians of humanitarianism, as they develop their field, think about the varied conceptual tools and historiographical evolutions that the new imperial history and colonial and post-colonial studies have developed? For example, can debates in imperial and global history over analytical scale and over the disciplinary limits of history help historians of humanitarianism to range more widely? More specifically, the sense of scale operative in recent attempts at global micro-histories comes to mind here. Equally, as Emily Baughan noted in referring, during the Past & Present Conversation, to her engagement with work by Africanists such as Benedetta Rossi and Kara Moskowitz, the productively tempestuous broader relationship of imperial and global history to the inter-disciplinary and multi-lingual strengths of area studies is a fruitful inspiration. How can such pre-existing and well-established debates help historians of humanitarianism to find a balance between the structural and institutional emphasis of recent work on international or non-governmental organisations, and the productively intimate and imaginatively engaged histories of subjectivity increasingly at large in both modern and medieval research agendas?

Third, how might historians make intersectional use of the category of race to link concepts of empire and humanitarianism? How might the category of whiteness, for instance, help illuminate military humanitarian practices?


Sarah Frank (St Andrews) opened the debate with a discussion of her research on French colonial subjects who were interned in France after the Nazi defeat of the French Army in 1940. Frank showed incisively how the racialisation of the colonial prisoners of war (POWs) had deep pre-1939 roots but also took on new valences in the accelerated tempo of post-armistice wartime emergency. These logics saturated the blended humanitarian-military-imperial logics to which the POWs were subject. Thus, colonial POWs were interned in France by the Nazis instead of being deported to Germany for racial reasons. But once interned they also became the object of international, (Vichy) national-state and even individual humanitarian measures in ways that reflected established patterns of cultural stereotyping. Simultaneously, different actors sought to use humanitarian endeavour towards the colonial POWs to shape future political outcomes. Thus, the Vichy state tried to make its paternalist and increasingly professionalised and bureaucratic provision of humanitarian food parcels to colonial POWs a vector to retain the loyalty of its colonial territories. Accordingly, it tried to shut down individual relief efforts by French citizens living in proximity to internment camps. Meanwhile, the colonial POWs’ rights under the 1929 Geneva Convention were recognised, unlike those of Soviet POWs in the East, whose death rate was catastrophically worse. Frank paid valuable close attention to the everyday use of foodstuffs and to the rhythms and logistics of relief delivery, showing how unequal and culturally stereotyping racial logics were baked into the choice of foodstuffs provided (Tet or Eid holidays were marked in relief deliveries, Moroccan parcels were superior to Tunisian or Algerian ones). With multiple networks providing relief to the internment camps, problems of logistics became problems of morale for particular groups, another source of inequalities. In terms of race, Frank showed how the ways in which white familial relationships were fostered by relief efforts – while the state positioned itself as the ‘father’ to POWs of colour, refusing the primacy of social and familial networks of colour, even as it banked on those same networks to transmit the gratitude it hoped the food parcels would elicit in individual colonial POWs.

Nina Wardleworth (Leeds) developed a related set of points by examining how and why women from the French Caribbean (Guadeloupe, Martinique) resisted the reactionary regime introduced into the Caribbean under the French Vichy regime of WW2. These women joined the Free French forces, and later their wartime service drew them into subsequent humanitarian, political and educational roles in the ambit of a (partially) decolonising French imperial formation. Wardleworth’s path-blazing analysis not only underlined the almost complete absence of women from the archival taxonomy of the French state military archives in question most notably its photographic holdings (ECPAD), but also innovatively placed the wartime hunger of the French Caribbean and the emergency and humanitarian politics of that moment into a longer run history, surely a key insight for humanitarian history at large. Wardleworth showed how the women’s lives were often rooted in the activism of the 1930s (including the Negritude movement), proceeded through their volunteering for wartime service to the Free French and went on to bloom again in the struggles of Caribbean women of colour to claim leading roles in the post-war politics of social and economic rights and anti-colonial independence. These were years when labour migration to the French metropole brought many Caribbean women into domestic service in France, a little known story in contrast to the North African workers who staffed many of the factories of what Herrick Chapman has lately called ‘France’s Long Reconstruction’. Wardleworth thereby re-lit the scenes of hunger, disaster and isolation that are a familiarly bleak frame for humanitarian histories by deploying a medium-term chronology that traversed separate colonial-political regimes to productive effect.

Wardleworth also emphasised how the Dissidentes women who joined the Free French from the Caribbean, for instance joining its ‘Services Feminins’ (Women’s Auxiliary Service) were both racialised themselves and also deployed in racializing social services and humanitarian relief activities in Allied North Africa in the closing years of the war. She also traced the archival and individual afterlives of her story, noting how archivists in the Caribbean have steadily sought out donations of material even as metropolitan state archives both occlude and are haunted by the women’s stories. Again here, the inspiration for historians of humanitarianism seemed clear, in terms of a focus on the political afterlives, archival politics and memory studies of humanitarian work long after emergency moments have passed.

Claire Eldridge (Leeds) moved the chronological focus from the Second World War to the First World War but continued to spotlight the intersection of military institutions with logics of racial hierarchy and colonial rule. Through a deep exploration of French military judicial records, Eldridge also showed how the records of a mass institution such as the military can produce a mosaic of testimony from fragments of the texture of everyday experience, an insight that is potently available for wide methodological application in humanitarian historiographies where the recovery of subaltern voices is at a premium. Eldridge showed the potential of military justice archives to provide a history from below of the half million colonial troops that served in the French Army, diversifying histories of soldiery in the First World War and contesting the assumption of whiteness through which such sources are often handled – the ‘white gloves’ with which historians too-often grasp documents.

The cases Eldridge examined allowed a valuable portrait of everyday military life and its racialised logics to appear in the details of the evidence adduced. Social practices of food and alcohol consumption provided notably rich pickings, showing how the tactics soldiers used to manage fear and fuel their resilience at the same time drew on and exposed them to the reproduction of colonial hierarchies. As in current research in other contexts by scholars such as Judith Surkis, these were hierarchies in which individual and political sovereignty were expressed notably in bodily practices and repertoires. As in Wardleworth’s and Frank’s interventions, Eldridge showed how the temporal practices of a specific emergency moment (wartime) were revealed in everyday military social rituals: as Paul Lawrie has put it in another context, ‘every time has its times’. For instance, a card-game, in which time was whiled away and thoughts of death perhaps cloaked, also crystallised racialised social tensions and built up a dangerous potential for shame and insult between, say, a white officer with a weaker hand and an Algerian ‘Zouave’ soldier who momentarily held some literal aces. The ensuing offences were sanctioned down a colonial racial hierarchy, but sentences were often suspended in order to maintain the fighting strength (in at least two senses of the term) of the units concerned.


Overall, the debate pointed up the value of setting humanitarian historiography more thoroughly into key broader debates, including those that take place in colonial and post-colonial studies and in Area Studies. The archival value of large institutions such as the military, of spaces such as internment camps, or of the networks and rituals through which sustenance was delivered, contested and criticised, came into particularly clear focus. As Eleanor Davey put it in the roundtable discussion, this showed

…the value of discovery work in new or very neglected archives, and the important rescue work that archivists are doing, but also the value of reading more familiar sets of sources with new lenses.

Moreover, as Davey further emphasised, the benefits of thinking intersectionally with the category of race were clear and the papers showed especially how, when combined with an attention to gendered experiences such as the dissidentes.

treatment or the politics of military masculinity, new lines of questioning arose. Finally, the value of longer chronologies through which to grasp humanitarian histories was pointed up most clearly by Wardleworth’s intervention, which cast new light on the dynamics of a given humanitarian arena by treating it within a medium-term framework. The future of the history of humanitarianism as a discreet sub-field is exciting, therefore, especially so when it is able to engage with the insights and debates of cognate fields.

Past & Present welcomes additional perspectives that continue the discussions begun in the journal’s pages. Any scholars who have organised events such as the above, or who have their own reflections upon the questions and historiographical matters raised during the Humanitarianism Conversation; are invited to get in touch with Josh (Past & Present Digital Engagement) in the first instance, with their ideas for blog posts.  

Looking Back to the Future: Nationalist Visions of India in the Twentieth Century

By Josh Allen - November 19, 2018 (0 comments)

 Dr. Aashish Velkar (University of Manchester)

When Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) made his iconic painting of Bharat Mata, or Mother India, in 1905, he gave form to a vision of a united nation. The image of a saffron clad woman, holding a manuscript, sheaves of paddy, a piece of cloth and a garland visualised India (or Bharat) as a nation united by its industry, spirituality, knowledge, wisdom and ecology (see Image 1). This process of visualising – giving form to an imagination – would be repeated in many different ways throughout the independence movement of the 1920s and the 1930s (see Image 2).1

Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore

Image 1: Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore, 1905, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Advertisement for a textile firm showing a "hopeful" future for India

Image 2: Advertisement for a textile firm showing a “hopeful” future for India. Source: Bombay Swadeshi League, 1930; Image courtesy of Lisa Trivedi

The images gave material form to the nationalist aspirations for a politically united nation, which India was not before 1950, as well as an economically developed nation, which it certainly was not. Historiography notes how vivid and diverse these visions were. Tagore’s student, Nandalal Bose (1882-1966), captured Gandhi’s vision of an Indian society built upon localism and traditional arts and crafts. Bose’s murals, painted for the 1938 Congress session at Haripura celebrated village daily lives and rural traditions, tying them to the nationalist project of swarajya, or self-rule: the murals decorated the pandals, or the temporary platforms, erected for the Congress session.2

Around the same time, M Visveswaraya (1861-1962), the engineer-civil servant from Mysore, was pioneering the ideas for economic planning in India. Writing in the aftermath of the First World War, Visveswaraya advocated the need for national plans (in the political, economic and social spheres), as well as the desirability of working out the national destiny.3 His vision of developing a new kind of ‘Indian mind’ resonated with Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of economic and social development through large-scale industrialisation (see Image 3). Nehru (1889-1964) often acknowledged how Visveswaraya’s writings were instrumental in shaping his own thoughts about India’s economic and social future, although the two would disagree about the extent of centralised planning that was necessary.

Image 3: Visveswaraya with Nehru Source: Wikimedia Commons

The nationalist visions intrigued me as I was looking into the significance of technology in governance, nationalist thought and plans for India’s economic development after 1947. In writing my article ‘Rethinking Metrology, Nationalism and Development in India, 1833-1956,’ (Past & Present No. 239 May 2018), I wanted to link the technology that shaped the mundane, everyday practices of people to the profound and esoteric ideas of some of the nationalists. Historical metrology, or systems of weights and measures in the past, became a lens through which I could gaze at both the mundane as well as the profound and examine how they were linked in the minds of the people I was interested in studying.

Using metrology as my lens, I could examine not only how systems of measurements were used as instruments of rule and governance by colonial governments, but also how they were invoked by nationalists to give form to their visions of India as a unified political, social and economic space. Such a technology of the everyday was appropriated in discourses that could lay out in simple, easily understood terms what independent India could be and what needed to be done to ‘urgently’ lift the new nation out of the low living standards and poverty.4 The ‘emotional’ arguments that Nehru and others proposed melded the technocratic approach favoured by engineers, statisticians and economists together with the resurrection or preservation of traditional ways of ‘doing things’ from India’s past. It is this melding together that sets apart the case of India’s developmental approach in the mid-twentieth century. However, this narrative can be better understood if it is adequately historicised in the context of India’s colonial history. In my own way, I have tried to do just that in the article.

Looking into the past to gaze at a possible future is not unique to the historical actors I study in my article. We are beginning to appreciate how economic actors factor narratives about the past into their visions about expected futures: the act of making a financial investment (buying a house or setting up a business venture) often requires some assessment of risk versus gain.5 This assessment is based on historical knowledge as much as it is based on expectations about the future. The degree and manner to which past narratives form part of future expectations may differ, and the techniques used may differ as well (not every house buyer uses a formal financial model to inform their decision). Nonetheless, narratives about (and from) the past are used to give form to expectations about the future.

One intriguing question this raises is what do people do when narratives about the past are incomplete or have missing bits? Historians examining spatial scales have found that actors visualising ‘wholes’ often have to depend upon fragmented ‘parts’ to make up the complete picture: the missing bits are often simply filled-in.6 Do people do the same with missing information about the past?

In some ways, the people in my story ‘fill-in’ the missing bits by imagining what their past may have looked like. Nandalal Bose’s murals were not just a representation of contemporary rural life or visions about a Gandhian future. They were narratives about past Indian social and economic life which many nationalists aspired to return to: these nationalists abhorred the visions of an economically unequal country presented by colonial industrialisation, even as they grappled with the social inequities they saw around them.7

As I show in my article, India’s nationalist rulers wanted to prepare for the future by looking into its past to resurrect some ideas, whilst ridding themselves of other ideas that fettered the nation. This experiment is still on-going in the twenty-first century. The recent wave of right-wing, fundamentalist nationalism has seen some revival of historical sources of communal, religious and racial tensions. Images of Hindu chariots and deities jostle for political and social attention alongside images of cities peppered with modern high-rise constructions. What such visualisations unfold for the future remains to be seen.

For the moment though, I continue to be struck by how much the metrology of India is still tied to its colonial past. I was recently required to submit a ‘2 x 2 inch’ photograph for an official form by the Indian government, instructions that clearly eschewed metric dimensions of centimetres or millimetres. Such instructions, made after nearly 50 years of officially adopting the metric system, made me pause and think how many in India, like in the UK and US, continue to painfully ‘inch towards the metre.’8


1Lisa Trivedi, Clothing Gandhi’s Nation (Bloomington & Indianapolis 2007); see also the collection of visual essays at

2See for examples of Nandalal Bose’s murals.

3M Visvesvaraya, Reconstructing India (London 1920); and Planned Economy for India (Bangalore 1934)

4P C Mahalanobis, ‘Some observations on the process of growth of national income,’ Sankhya: The Indian Journal of Statistics (1933-1960) 12 (1953), 307-12. The Mahalanobis development model would be hugely influential in post-independence economic planning.

5See such notions see Jens Beckert, Imagined Futures: fictional expectations and capitalist dynamics (Cambridge, MA 2016); Jonathan Levy, “Capital as Process and the History of Capitalism.” Business History Review 91, (2017), 483–510.

6Mary S Morgan, ‘Seeking Parts, Looking for wholes,’ in Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck (eds.) Histories of Scientific Observation (Chicago and London, 2011), 303-325.

7I have set out these ideas in a separate essay: ‘Imagining Economic Space in Colonial India,’ Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 36B (2018), 109-128.

8Read Sidin Vadukut’s take on how older forms of metrology still continue to baffle Indians today:

Lighting the Enlightenment

By Josh Allen - November 8, 2018 (0 comments)

by Prof. Darrin M. McMahon (Dartmouth College)

Try googling ‘light and enlightenment’ and see what you find. Buddhism, new age religion, mindfulness, and spirituality top the list. Scroll down and you may come across a few fleeting references to 18th-century theology. But if you are hoping to find discussions of the Enlightenment in the context of lanterns, illumination, and light, you’ll need to search a little harder, or be prepared to be left in the dark.

Was there really no relationship at all between that great movement of 18th-century culture and actual illumination? Between the Enlightenment and light itself? To be sure, scholars have long probed the question in metaphorical terms, showing how a master Christian metaphor was wrested from the hands of those who had once proclaimed Jesus as the exclusive light and way. But to search for some connection between the material practice of lighting and the Enlightenment of the mind appears to have struck many as too basic, or too banal, to spark reflection.

And yet it is clear that light in the age of Enlightenment was more than just a metaphor. We know from the pioneering work of social and urban historians of the night such as Wolfgang SchivelbuschA. Roger EkirchCraig Koslofksy, and Alain Cabantous that the long 18th century was, quite literally, a century of lights in the sense that it witnessed an unprecedented conquest of the dark. Marked by a concerted effort to publicly illuminate cities, this conquest took the form of hundreds of thousands of lanterns that were erected in urban centers from Paris to Potsdam. Whereas in 1660, not a single city in Europe possessed regularly illuminated streets, a century later that situation had changed. Voltaire, for one, took note of the transformation, observing ruefully in his Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) that while ‘five thousand lamps lighted up Paris every night,’ Rome itself was not lighted at all. The symbolism was perfect. Paris had become the true beacon of the world, at once illuminated and enlightened. Rome, not so much.

Although scholars of the Enlightenment have been slow to register these developments, and to ask what impact they may have had on the light of the times, that is beginning to change. Social and urban historians such as Marco Cicchini and Sophie Reculin have been mapping the topography of the 18th-century lighting revolution with ever-greater precision, showing how light moved from a luxury to a necessity in the 18th century, and how new urban spaces around theatres, public promenades, and squares were transformed by illumination. Meanwhile, literary scholars such as Marine Ganofsky have analyzed (in this very blog) the ways in which illumination transformed the night into an erotic adventure-zone, a space free of fear and open to pleasure, where libertines could frolic. And in my own work I have sought to explore the relationship between illumination and Enlightenment in a number of ways.

For one thing, a surprising number of Enlightenment figures were themselves directly interested in lighting and illumination. Benjamin Franklin, the son of a tallow chandler, took a keen interest in lantern design and helped to organize the public lighting of the city of Philadelphia. Lavoisier penned a treatise on the best means to light a great city like Paris, and experimented constantly with fuels, wicks, and the angles of reflection and refraction in the light emitted from lanterns. Voltaire, too, like Marat and Madame Du Châtelet, experimented with flames. Diderot wrote about the history of candles. Jefferson studied whale oil, among the 18th-century’s most important lighting fuels. Goethe not only studied optics, but also concerned himself with the intricacies of stage lighting.

An enlightened history of the lantern by a society of men of letters, by Jean-François Dreux du Radier. Although the work was written as a satire, it effectively contributed to what was a new Enlightenment genre: the cultural and technical history of lighting practices. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Just as importantly, a host of lesser lights pursued Enlightenment through illumination. Some, like the inventor and engineer Bourgeois de Chateaublanc, devoted their energy to technical matters, like perfecting the new reflector lamps, the réverbères. Others, such as Jean-Francois Dreux du Radier and his ‘society of men of letters’, wrote satirical histories of lanterns, mocking the pretensions of a new genre, the comparative history of light. Still others, like Pierre Tourtille-Sangrain or Charles de Rabiqueau, pursued the business of illumination as the counterpart to the business of Enlightenment. As the latter declared on his calling card, advertising his services as an entrepreneur de l’illumination,Rabiqueau could ‘enlighten the mind as well as matter.’

And that is precisely the point. Enlightenment and illumination went hand in hand. Perhaps most importantly, public lighting created the conditions for a vastly expanded urban sociability that was central to the emergence of the public sphere. Shops stayed open longer, theatre curtain times were pushed back, and restaurants and cafés served long after dark, later than ever before. Salons and visiting hours were also extended into the night, meaning that enlightened discussion was very often conducted after the sun went down. Street lighting led the way, creating the appearance (if not always the reality) of greater safety and rational control over the environment, combating not just crime but superstition and fear.

‘He enlightens and illuminates, both matter and the mind’! The calling card of the inventor, scientist and ‘entrepreneur de l’illumination’ Charles de Rabiqueau, advertising his services and ‘spectacles’ at his shop on the rue St. Jacques in Paris. © Archives Nantes.

Light, in these respects, was a vivid symbol of progress, and contemporaries were highly aware that its implementation set the enlightened apart. As Anne-Louis Leclerc du Brillet observed typically in a draft history of street lighting written sometime in the 1730s, ‘The usage of public lighting in cities does not seem to have been established in any nation previously – even in those that passed for the most civilized (les plus policés).’ Public lighting, in short, was unique to the modern age, and it reflected perfectly the novel sense that contemporaries were living in a novel time, a singular epoch of progress and advancement. To illuminate the night was to begin to understand and control what had long been considered another realm, dispelling darkness and the superstitions it fostered.

Not all, to be sure, welcomed the light. A dialectic of illumination was the counterpart to the dialectic of Enlightenment, giving rise to protests and a European (and North American) wave of lantern smashing over the course of the 18th century. When viewed from this perspective, lanterns could seem a little bit like surveillance cameras; they were not always welcome. And yet by the last third of the 18th century, the evidence is strong that proponents of illumination were overcoming their less enlightened antagonists. It is telling that a good number of the cahiers de doléances written up in France before the convening of the Estates General in 1789 asked for more light, not less. Like Goethe on his deathbed, the Enlightened and illuminated citizens of the age desired mehr Licht.

This blog has been posted with the kind permission of the Voltaire Foundation at the University of Oxford, on whose site this post was originally published on the 23rd October 2018.

Development and education: the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation and postwar development discourse

By Josh Allen - October 29, 2018 (0 comments)

Dr. Michele Alacevich (University of Bologna)

At the end of World War II, Italian anti-fascist Carlo Levi published his memoir of one year of internal exile in Southern Italy. In it, Levi describes “that other world, hedged in by custom and sorrow, cut off from History and the State . . . where the peasant lives out his motionless civilization on barren ground in remote poverty”.1 Translated into English in 1947, Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli quickly became a classic—not only for readers interested in narrative and memoirs, but also for anthropologists and social scientists. “Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli” was the way Levi’s peasants signified they excluded from human civilization, part of a world of immutable backwardness.2

As I have shown in my article “Planning Peace: The European Roots of the Post-War Global Development Challenge” (Past & Present, Volume 239, Issue 1, 1 May 2018, pp. 219–264), Levi’s book was only one—though an important one—of the many channels through which the concepts of backwardness and development emerged from the specific context of eastern and south-eastern Europe via southern Italy to global discourse.

(As an addendum to my article: I recently stumbled upon a World Bank internal correspondence from 1955, reporting a reading list on agricultural issues in southern Italy: Levi’s book was the only literary work in a list of thirty-nine highly technical reports).3

Early edition cover of “Christ Stopped at Eboli”, image supplied by the author

In addition to the trajectory of postwar development discourse that I have delineated in “Planning Peace”—in a nutshell, the origins of the postwar development discourse from Europe to the global dimension—another interesting question is how the dyad backwardness/development has become part of a specifically intra-European conversation. This is particularly relevant today, as the “Southern Question”—the Italian label for the conundrum of the continued discrepancy between northern and southern standards of living—now resonates at the European level, separating “Mediterranean” and “Continental” Europe.

Obviously, Cold War dynamics played an important role in the emergence of the dyad backwardness/development in Europe. Economic and social backwardness were a menace to political stability, especially in a country like Italy strategically located at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, sharing a border with Communist Yugoslavia, and with the largest Communist Party in Western Europe (see, again, “Planning Peace”).

In another respect, however, the problem of underdevelopment became part of a European conversation through a question that I have not discussed in “Planning Peace”, namely, how to improve educational programs at the continental level via inter-governmental co-operation. Unsurprisingly, the institutional locus for this conversation was the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), established in 1948 under U.S. auspices to stimulate European coordination during the Marshall Plan and later turned into a permanent body to foster trade liberalization and economic cooperation (in 1961 the OEEC was superseded by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD).

Early OEEC poster, late 1940s, from the archives of the OECD

Education was very much on the mind of the first generation of development economists, though from a specifically productivist perspective. As development meant an expansion of high-productivity sectors and this, in turn, basically meant industrialization and the migration of excess workforce to a newly established industrial sector, the problem arose of how individuals belonging to a timeless agrarian culture could adapt to factory work and its rhythms.

In his milestone 1943 article on the problems of industrialization in eastern and south-eastern Europe, Paul Rosenstein-Rodan argued that “The first task of industrialisation is to provide for training and ‘skilling’ of labour which is to transform . . . peasants into full-time or part-time industrial workers”.4 Typically, for years when state intervention in the economy was not anathema, Rosenstein-Rodan saw this as a quintessentially government’s task: “Although not a good investment for a private firm, [for an entrepreneur who invests in training workers may lose capital if these workers contract with another firm], it is the best investment for the State”.5 In Pigovian terms, this appeared as a typical case in which the social marginal net product is higher than the private one. Hence, state planning on education is necessary.

This is precisely what happened in Europe under the OEEC-OECD umbrella. In 1961, the OECD established the Mediterranean Regional Project, whose aim was to foster the growth of six south-European countries, namely, Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. (Interestingly, then as now, France is not considered to belong to Mediterranean Europe. The stretch from Ventimiglia-Menton to Cerbère-Portbou seems to belong to a different world).

The Mediterranean Regional Project built on the experience of an OEEC Committee for Scientific and Technical Personnel, established in 1958 to study the “rational utilisation of the scientific and technical training necessary for meeting the needs arising from economic growth”.6 But if that initial effort clearly showed the strictly productivist perspective that informed it, the Mediterranean Regional Project soon expanded the educational question to encompass broader issues of social participation and citizenship. As Herbert S. Parnes, economics professor at Ohio State University, expert on labour markets, and a major force behind the Mediterranean Regional Project, argued: “If hydroelectric capacity is to be increased by 50 per cent, one can feel reasonably confident of estimating the requirements for additional engineers . . . In the social sphere, however . . . can one reasonably talk about raising the level of citizenship by 50 per cent? And even if one were to answer this affirmatively, how would one quantify the needs for additional education implied by this objective?”7

Soon, the educational question broadened to the study of the member countries’ whole educational systems. George Papadopoulos, a leading international scholar of educational issues and an OECD high officer, wrote that “In the annals of the OECD operational activities no project was endowed with more extensive support—financial, intellectual and political—or received more sustained critical scrutiny, conceptual and methodological, or greater public attention, and publicity, than the Mediterranean Regional Project”.8

Eboli centro storico
Eboli today, By Geofix [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

In sum, as Mattia Granata and I argue in a forthcoming project, the educational question soon became a crucial building block of European development planning, with a special focus on the backward regions of Mediterranean Europe. Like for the broader development discourse analysed in “Planning Peace”, it did not take long before the European experience on educational planning entered as well the global circuit of development ideas.

Several Latin American countries and the Organization of American States looked at the Mediterranean Regional Project as a blueprint for educational policies in South America. Despite the fact that in Latin America literacy rates and public funding for education were on average lower than in Europe, the social structure and broad cultural traditions of the two continents seemed similar enough to make it possible to adapt the project easily to the Latin American reality—clearly, Latin American indigenous cultures were not part of the picture.9 And the “Latin” connection was not the only one: an attempt to export the OECD experience to the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea took place at the end of the 1960s, as well.10

A note of caution is warranted here. If the European roots of the post-war global development discourse are undeniable, it is also true that development ideas had multiple cradles spread around the globe. In the early post-war years, many countries, regions and institutions were considered development “laboratories” because of the novel and experimental nature of the development policies that they implemented. This is also important to remember. After all, as Francis Bacon wrote, “Innovations”—or new ideas—“are the births of time”.11


1Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006 [1947], p. 3.


3D. Groenveld to Mr. Rosen, “Literature on agriculture in S. Italy,” November 7, 1955, ITALY—General Negotiations, Central Files, 1946-1971, Operational Correspondence, World Bank Group Archives.

4Paul N. Rosenstein-Rodan, “Problems of Industrialisation of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe”, The Economic Journal, Vol. 53, No. 210/211 (1943), pp. 202-211, the quote is from p. 204.

5Ibid., p. 205.

6OECD, The Mediterranean regional project. An experiment in planning by six countries, Paris: OECD, 1965, p. 8.

7Herbert S. Parnes, The OECD Mediterranean regional project in retrospect, in George Z. F. Bereday, Joseph A. Lauwerys, and Mark Blaug (eds.), World Yearbook of Education 1967. Educational Planning, London: Evan’s Brothers, 1967, pp. 149-160, the quote is from p. 154.

8George Papadopoulos, Education 1960-1990. The OECD perspective, Paris: OECD, 1994, p. 43.


10OECD, Problems of educational and manpower planning in the Arab countries and in the Mediterranean regional project countries, Paris: OECD, 1967.

11Francis Bacon, “Of Innovations” (1625), in The Essays of Francis Bacon, edited with introduction and notes by Mary Augusta Scott, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908, p. 109.