Knowledge and Development

Knowledge and Development. Technology and Science in the Postcolonial Culture of Development

Daniel Speich

Cooperation Partners: 

Institute for History, ETH Zurich, Centre for the History of Knowledge, University of Zurich and ETH Zurich

Since World War II, a complex system of international technical cooperation and development aid has evolved that prominently structures knowledge about the North–South divide. Countless international organizations owe their very existence to this field of expertise. The “Development Machine” (James Ferguson) has become a powerful element within the socioeconomic reality of almost all recipient countries, and its fundraising activities have strongly influenced the public image of the Third World on the donor side. This project proposed understanding the aid industry as a new global culture, within which forms of knowledge play a key role as agents of coherence.

Initially, the postcolonial practice of development aid was shaped by the Western model of a Keynesian welfare state and conceptualized as a strategic element in the Cold War. Necessary conditions for the initial conceptualization of development were an unrestricted faith in science and technology, a strong state, a stable and clearly regulated international economic order, and the assumption that socioeconomic change can be planned, induced, and controlled. By the 1970s, the existence of most of these conditions had been seriously called into question. But surprisingly, the business of development aid gained further momentum. Net aid flows continued to rise in the 1980s, even as it became more and more evident that the whole endeavor had basically missed its objective. Meanwhile, questions concerning the low efficiency of aid and the failure of development schemes have become major topics in a booming discipline.

This project explained the persistence of the model in terms of a cultural analysis. It considered three case studies to describe the role of scientific and technical knowledge in the perception of socioeconomic change. Areas of study are an international organization (UNDP), a recipient country (Kenya), and a donor context (Switzerland). Since the 1950s, concepts of change in these three spheres gradually merged into the term “development,” thus giving rise to a global frame of reference, shared by experts in metropolitan headquarters as well as project participants in the field.

Over the last five decades, the international development discourse has been an important source of situative cultural identity for donors as well as recipients. A cosmopolitan culture has resulted that can be called a “new tribe” (Ulf Hannerz). While its material existence is secured by politically, economically, or morally motivated aid flows, the cultural mode of existence of this postcolonial culture of development is defined by the production, diffusion, and reformulation of scientific and technical knowledge. The main argument of this project was that the internal cohesion of postcolonial development culture reached a critical dimension towards the end of the 1960s, allowing for system stability and growth despite rather unfavourable changes in the politico-economic environment.

Before engaging with the case studies, the project investigated the characteristics of the relevant forms of knowledge, focusing on the discipline of economics. Of interest were the disciplinary appropriation of the biological concept of development; the definition of specific epistemic objects within the body of economic knowledge, such as the gross domestic product; the mechanisms of drawing disciplinary borders by which positions of “true” statements are defined; and the role assigned to science and technology in development theory. This epistemological analysis offered a research tool for the analysis of the work of scientific and technical knowledge within postcolonial development culture.

Another question was whether new findings concerning the popularisation of scientific knowledge, revisioning simple sender-receiver models into more complex concepts of communicative communities, could be applied to the relation between donors and recipients of technical assistance. While aid flows are characteristically directed from North to South, the flows of knowledge, including field research and productive appropriation processes of prescriptions, have always followed more chaotic lines within least-developed countries.

Funding Institutions

MPG, Swiss National Science Foundation