During the early years of World War II, Japan won major victories (such as the capture of Singapore) against the British and threatened India. Japanese propaganda pointed to British racism and offered themselves as the defenders of non-white peoples. The British feared that non-white people in the colonies might side with the Japanese rather than their colonial masters. The British had to come up with a new justification for colonial rule to replace the unpopular and increasingly implausible idea that they were a superior race destined to rule inferior races. In response, they invented the concept of economic development.
This story is told in an undeservedly obscure book by Suke Wolton, 2000, Lord Hailey, the Colonial Office, and the Politics of Race and Empire in the Second World War, (I have this thing for obscure development history books; this one is ranked #4,399,430 on Amazon)
The Japanese charge of British racism was certainly correct. They were so racist they thought even nonwhites acknowledged their own inferiority, like when Julian Huxley referred to the natives’ “childlike belief in the white as an inherently superior being.” After World War I, the Americans and British shot down a League of Nations resolution for Racial Equality proposed by the Japanese. The Colonial Office said in 1939 “most Africans are still savages.”
But during the dark days when the British were losing World War II, the racism was no longer allowed to be so explicit. The Labor Minister in 1941 banned the N word for Africans and “coolies” for Indians. The Colonial Office further told the BBC that the N-word should be “discouraged” on the radio. A further breakthrough caused the BBC to drop the word “native.”
But something more positive was needed to put the Empire in a good light. A long-time colonial official, Lord Hailey came up with the idea in 1941 of redefining the Empire’s mission as “promotion of native welfare.” (I guess he didn’t get the BBC memo about “native.”) And he argued the colonies could only develop with Britain’s help (sound familiar?) In short, Hailey said:
A new conception of our relationship…may emerge as part of the movement for the betterment of the backward peoples of the world, which stands in the forefront of every enlightened programme for …postwar conditions.
To repress independence movements, however, Hailey made a distinction between political development and economic development: “Political liberties are meaningless unless they can be built on a better foundation of social and economic progress.” (A line that autocrats have been using ever since.) The Colonial Office thought many colonies “little removed from their primitive state,” so “they will probably not be fit for complete independence for centuries.”
Of course, changing the language from racist to economic development did not mean racism suddenly disappeared. As Wolton shows, “the white Western elites still believed in their fundamental superiority.” In the end, Wolton says, “The major powers would continue to be able to determine the future of the colonial territories – only this time the source of their legitimacy was based less on racial difference and more on their new role as protector and developmental economist.” After the war, even more officials went out to the Empire in what became known as the “second colonial occupation.”
Why does this history matter today? After all, the Empire fell apart much sooner than expected, and racism did diminish a lot over time. And I do NOT mean to imply guilt by association for development as imperialist and racist; there are many theories of development and many who work on development (including many from developing countries themselves) that have nothing to do with imperialism and racism.
But I think the origin of development as cover for imperialism and racism did have toxic legacies for some. First, it meant that the concept of development was determined to fit a propaganda imperative; it was NOT a breakthrough in thought by economists. Second, it followed that development from the beginning would stress the central role of Western aid to help the helpless natives (which shows up in the early development theories like the “poverty trap” and the “Big Push,” and the lack of interest in local entrepreneurs and market incentives). Third, the paternalism was so extreme at the beginning that it would last for a long time – I still think it is widespread today, especially after today’s comeback of the early development ideas in some parts of the aid system. And this history also seems strangely relevant with today’s “humanitarian” nouveau-imperialism to invade and fix “failed states” like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Membership in the development elites is far more diverse than in Lord Hailey’s time, but I fear that, to use Wolton’s words, “in the end, the elites still believe in their fundamental superiority.”