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

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.

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