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It is customary to trace the origin of the idea of development to a statement made by US President Harry Truman in 1949, who, in his inauguration speech before Congress, drew the attention of his audience to conditions in poorer countries and defined them for the first time as "underdeveloped areas". Truman may have formulated the idea of development in a new way, but it is an old idea, and the path along which it is leading the countries of the Third World is a well-trodden one.
As Francois Partant, the French banker-turned-archcritic of development, has put it:
"The developed nations have discovered for themselves a new mission - to help the Third World advance along the road to development . . . which is nothing more than the road on which the West has guided the rest of humanity for several centuries."(1)
The thesis of this article is that Partant was right. Development is just a new word for what Marxists call imperialism and what we can loosely refer to as colonialism - a more familiar and less loaded term.
A quick look at the situation in the Third Word today undoubtedly reveals the disquieting continuity between the colonial era and the era of development. There has been no attempt by the governments of the newly-independent countries to re-draw their frontiers. No attempt has been made to restore precolonial cultural patterns. With regards to the key issues of land use, the colonial pattern has also been maintained. As Randall Baker notes, "Essentially the story is one of continuity",(2) while the peasants, who as Erich Jacoby writes, "identified the struggle for national independence with the fight for land" never recovered their land. "National independence simply led to its take-over by a new brand of colonialists".
If development and colonialism (at least, in its last phase from the 1870s onwards) are the same process under a different name, it is largely that they share the same goal. This goal was explicitly stated by its main promoters. For instance, Cecil Rhodes - Britain's most famous promoter of colonialism in the 1890s - declared that:
"We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories".
Similar sentiments were expressed openly during the late 1800s by Lord Lugard, the English governor of Nigeria, and by former French president Jules Ferry.
But many countries in Asia and elsewhere were simply not willing to allow Western powers access to their markets or to the cheap labour and raw materials required. Nor were they willing to allow corporations to operate on their territory and undertake large-scale development projects such as road building and mining.
In Asia a small number of states were eventually bullied into complying with Western demands. Thus, in 1855, Siam signed a treaty with Britain, as did Annam with France in 1862. However, China was not interested, and two wars had to be fought before it could be persuaded to open its ports to British and French trade. Japan also refused, and only the threat of an American naval bombardment persuaded its government to open its ports to Western trade.
By 1880, European powers had obtained access to the markets of most of Asia's coastal regions, having negotiated special conditions for expatriate residents, such as greater freedom of activity within the countries concerned and the right to build railways and set up enterprises inland.
However, just as is the case today, commercial interests continued to demand and often obtained ever more comprehensive concessions, creating ever more favourable conditions for European corporations. Eventually, in China, Western commercial activities, as Harry Magdoff notes, largely "escaped China's laws and tax collections. Foreign settlements had their own police forces and tax systems, and ran their own affairs independently of nominally sovereign China" - a situation reminiscent of what goes on today in the Third World's Free Trade Zones. "At the same time, the opium trade which had been forced on the Chinese government militarily was legalized, customs duties reduced, foreign gunboats patrolled China's rivers and foreigners were placed on customs-collection staffs to ensure that China would pay the indemnities imposed by various treaties".(3)
In Egypt, Britain and France managed to obtain even more favourable conditions for their commercial enterprises by imposing the famous "capitulations" on the Ottoman sultan which provided all sorts of concessions to foreigners operating within his empire. In Egypt, they could import goods at the price they saw fit, they were largely exempt from taxes and constituted a powerful pressure group well capable of defending its commercial interests and of ensuring that the interest on the Egyptian bonds of which they were the principal holders was regularly paid. Throughout the non-industrial world, it was only if such conditions could no longer be enforced, usually when a new nationalist or populist government came to power, that formal annexation was resorted to. As D.K. Fieldhouse puts it, "colonialism was not a preference but a last resort"?
D.C. Platt, another contemporary student of nineteenth-century colonialism, adds that colonialism was necessary "to establish a legal framework in which capitalist relations could operate". If no new colonies were created in Latin America in the late nineteenth century, it is largely because a legal system "which was sufficiently stable for trade to continue was already in existence". This was not so in Africa where the only way to create the requisite conditions was by establishing colonial control.(5)
Slowly, as traditional society disintegrated under the impact of colonialism and the spread of Western values, and as the subsistence economy was replaced by the market economy on which the exploding urban population grew increasingly dependent, the task of maintaining the optimum conditions for Western trade and penetration became correspondingly easier. As a result, says Fieldhouse, by the mid-twentieth century:
"European merchants and investors could operate satisfactorily within the political framework provided by most reconstructed indigenous states as their predecessors would have preferred to operate a century earlier but without facing those problems which had once made formal empire a necessary expedient".(6)
In other words, formal colonialism came to an end not because the colonial powers had decided to forego the economic advantages it provided, but because, in the new conditions, these could now largely be obtained by more politically acceptable and more effective methods.
The "Level" Playing Field
This was probably clear to the foreign policy professionals and heads of large corporations that began meeting in Washington DC in 1939, under the aegis of the US Council on Foreign Relations to discuss how the postwar, postcolonialist world economy could best be shaped in order to satisfy US commercial interests.
In 1941, the Council formulated the concept of "the Grand Area" - that …