The international history of development politics and development aid has largely been written as a history of industrialization and modernization projects, most of which were later identified as failures (e.g. Scott 1998). Rural development has mostly been ignored or marginalized. The reasons for this “urban bias” (Lipton 1977) are complex. Rural populations are generally less well represented and mobilized; urban elites dominate political discourses and organizations; historians tend to focus on institutions and organizations, which reproduce urban concerns; and development in the twentieth century has often been considered synonymous with industrialization. Hence, rural spaces, rural populations, and rural practices have been neglected both in development theories and practices as well as the historical studies on development. This is even more striking if we consider that until very recently the majority of the world’s population lived in rural settings and depended on agriculture. While by now the majority lives in cities, rural problems persist in many parts of the world: poverty, little or no access to basic needs and resources, and lack of representation.

Hence, it seems urgent to study the following questions:

  • Which development approaches for rural settings and rural societies existed in development organizations and discourses in the second half of the twentieth century?
  • How were those approaches realized, adapted, and transformed over time?
  • How, why and under which circumstances did rural development policies change in the second half of the twentieth century?
  • Which continuities, discontinuities and dynamics affected them?
  • And how did agrarian societies experience the doctrines and practices of development aid?

By answering these questions, the research project intends to reconstruct the history of development politics and development aid in rural regions; study the agrarian elements of development politics; and link them to the perspectives of the affected populations in different regions of the world.

The overarching goal of the project is to contribute to a better, more complex understanding of the history of development in the twentieth century. One aspect we consider particularly important is the interaction between the different social groups that were part of development politics. Specifically, the project is interested in the communication between the rural populations and the international organizations. Instead of following the sources produced by international and transnational actors, and thereby writing a top-down history, we aim to develop a more integrated, more balanced perspective.

Toward that goal, the project asks:

  • How did the different groups that were part of rural development position themselves vis-à-vis each other, and which effects did their interaction and communication have on development practices?
  • Can we observe a tendency over time (from the 1950s to today) to make development approaches less hierarchical and more participatory?
  • If so, which role did the relevant organizations play in this process?

The research team

The Research Group

Left to right: Aslak R. Bakkeland, Dienabou Barry, Aliya Tonkobayeva, Verena Kröss, Karin Bugow, Smriti Sharma, Corinna Unger, Marc Frey.