How Racist Roots backfire on Development Aid …

… and make it increasingly irrelevant

” … we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and the skill to relieve the suffering of these people.

January 20, 1949. Harry S. Truman’s Inaugural Address as the President of the United States of America is seen as the starting signal for something we now call “development aid”.

More than 60 years later we know that global economic development is indeed possible. Japan, South Korea, China, more and more African countries, and many others show the evidence. But we don’t know if it has become possible because of development aid or despite of it.

Contrary to the general belief, William Easterly in his new book The Tyranny of Experts demonstrates that development aid started in fact long before the famous speech of President Truman.

Racist roots

In 1919, right after World War I, the League of Nations denied racial equality and at the same time delegated power to “developed” nations to administer and develop certain “underdeveloped” countries. We remember, by that time Western diplomats still spoke of the “child races” of the world. In the 193os the US got into a coalition with the authoritarian Chiang Kai-shek’s China in order to preserve superiority and exterritorial rights for US citizens. In the 1940s British politicians tried to save the colonial empire by switching from a foundation based on racial superiority to one of technical and technological superiority.

“Locating the formative years of development between 1919 and 1949 highlights a critical point: development ideas took shape before there was even the most minimal respect in the West for the rights of individuals in the Rest”, writes Easterly. Together these incidents had one thing in common: the belief in the incapacity of the non-Western world and at the same time in (Western) technical solutions for development.

Based on partly still open racist concepts no references were made to individuals, only to a general level of countries or regions. No references were made to specific local situations either, no dealing with historical matters, local societies and power structures, or whatever specific strengths or weaknesses (“blank slate approach”). On the basis of this paternalistic thinking politicians and experts believed that actual development would be the result of their deliberate plans.

Easterly calls this thinking

“Authoritarian Development”

In 1949, by the time of President Truman’s famous speech, the intellectual struggle on development was already over and – according to Easterly – never taken on again.

Colonial times with their inherent racism against all non-whites created the concept of Authoritarian Development as a sublimation of former racist superiority thinking.

And still shape development aid today.

Quite a legacy. But look at many of the fund raising campaigns or political discussions about development in the West and you will hardly find appreciations of local situations (unless they have been caused by a development project) or arguments between Western and local experts on equal footing. In our so called “partner countries” we still act very much as paternalistic planners and we belief in our plans whereas at home we take the spontaneity and iterating nature of change as the normal.

It is this double standard – Western actors doing things differently in the non-Western world than they would do them at home – which uncovers our still existing authoritarian development thinking.


Whereas the basic concept of Western development aid didn’t change very much over time, the actual development in the non-Western world has changed dramatically. The general globalization of our economies and societies with all the new non-Western actors and the dramatic growth in trade, investments and all other forms of exchange have made all the difference.

One thing is that, as Easterly writes, we haven’t really questioned our authoritarian development approach for the last 60 years. The other thing is the inherent unilateral nature of aid, which by itself preserves a sort of superiority thinking of donors.

In times of dramatic change and global power shifts they together reveal the racist roots of development aid and make them backfire as development aid has become increasingly irrelevant.


See also Authoritarian Development and Systems Thinking

One comment

  1. Very interesting post. Do you mean that “authoritarian technocracy” has replaced colonialism and hampers democratic progress in developing countries? But isn’t that also an issue in Western societies where technical constraints (financial crisis) increasingly limit democratically decision making?

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