Towards a History of European Developmentalism

Towards a History of European Developmentalism: Development, Modernization and Europeanization from the 19th to the 21st century

Prof. Dr. Heinrich Hartmann/Dr. Margot Lyautey (Helmut-Schmidt-Universität Hamburg); Dr. Hugo Canihac (SAGE – Université de Strasbourg); Prof. Dr. Philipp Müller (Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung)
Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung
Takes place
In Attendance
From - Until
19.03.2025 - 21.03.2025
Margot Lyautey, Professur für Wissensgeschichte moderner Gesellschaften, Helmut-Schmidt-Universität/Universität der Bundeswehr Hamburg

As historical narratives on international politics of development and modernization are now consolidate, a genuinely European perspective, that considers the multiplicity of governmental and non-governmental actors, still seems to be missing. This conference aims to understand to what extent a politically integrated Europe might be understood as the result of practices of development policies within Europe and its (semi-)colonial periphery during the past two centuries.

Towards a History of European Developmentalism: Development, Modernization and Europeanization from the 19th to the 21st century

The history of international politics of development and modernization has provoked an enormous interest in recent scholarship. As historical narratives on these topics are now consolidated, a genuinely European perspective, taking into account the multiplicity of governmental and non-governmental actors, still seems to be missing. One might well argue that this is only the result of the lack of a long-term perspective on the role of international interventionist economic and social politics in Europe. In the literature, the history of such practices of intervention and that of the European political integration have been separate fields for too long. For this conference, the chair for the History of knowledge of modern societies at the Helmut-Schmidt-University, the Hamburg Institute of Social Research and the research center SAGE from the University of Strasbourg have joined forces to fill parts of this gap. The conference aims to understand, to what extent a politically integrated Europe might be understood as the result of practices of development policies within Europe and its (semi-)colonial periphery during the past two centuries.

In the last two decades, historians have shown that modernization was a powerful Cold War ideology whose roots went back into late colonial development policies. The classical narrative, however, would argue that the heydays of this idea were less part of late European imperialism, but rather of an emerging US-led set of interventionist instruments, that made ‘modernization’ for many equivalent to ‘Americanization’. However, this narrative falls short in taking up a European dimension of developmentalism, both on the European continent itself, and as part of a European international agenda, that moved more and more to the center of the politics of integration.

In contrast, this conference aims at exploring the emergence, consolidation and transformations of a ‘European developmentalism’. Developmentalism is here, too, conceived as an approach to development that encompasses a variety of ideas and knowledge, of practices and instruments, of actors and networks concerned with intervening in and improving the economic, social and political situation of regions perceived as ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘backward’. But this conference will go beyond the Cold war narrative to explore its European dimension in two regards.

First, it will bring to light and ponder on the specificity of European practices compared to development practices promoted, in the Cold war context, by the USA and the USSR. While European development ideas and practices first emerged in the context of colonial empires, we would like to reflect on their transimperial circulation, and eventually consolidation into a relatively stabilized set of transnational ideas and practices not identical, and indeed at times in tension with, US or Soviet developmentalisms. To that extent, one crucial aim of this conference is to complement the narrative presenting international development policies as an exclusive product of Cold war dynamics.

Second, this conference will add to existing research by emphasizing how the developmentalism that originated in Europe also played out on the European continent itself. In this perspective, it will highlight the re-circulation of the ideas, practices and actors of developmentalism from territories seen as ‘underdeveloped’ back to Europe. Interrogating these processes of bilateral circulations aims at directing attention on a little noted phenomenon, namely how European practices of international development also contributed to shaping policies directed towards Europe, such as regional policies or agricultural reform. Indeed, throughout the second half of the 20th century, ‘development’ has been a watchword massively used to promote specific policies directed at poorer regions within European states. It has also been remarkably present in the context of European integration – for instance through supranational policies promoting structural reforms in some Member states. Exploring how the constitution of a European expertise on international development of so-called ‘backward’ regions eventually shaped these policies in Europe will open new avenues to analyze how European developmentalism has shaped the instruments of European integration, and in fact, the very geography of Europe – as divided between a developed core, and ‘backward’ peripheries.

This conference thus sets out to trace the emergence of at first rather heterogeneous ideas, practices and networks in the context of European formal or informal (former) colonial empires. Spanning across a long period of time, it will attend to the eventual trajectory of this set of ideas, practices and actors – that is, their successful formalization into relatively coherent policies and institutions, or, to the contrary, their failure to do so. This is expected to foster a fruitful and interdisciplinary dialogue between works that still tend to remain well separated.

Chronologically, this conference will apprehend development policies in a long-term perspective, allowing to explore the different temporalities and the transformations of European approaches to development. It will run from the emergence of development policies (19th century) in the context of colonialism, to their systematization in the European Union (late 20th). Europe is, however, not limited to what is today known as the EU, which we understand as only one possible outcome of the 20th century political dynamics. Rather, it is understood as an evolving construct at the intersection of regional, national and transnational processes. In particular, this conference will reflect on the constitution of so-called ‘peripheral’ regions – both on the European continent and beyond. Indeed, such development policies targeted at peripheral regions reflect and contribute to defining where Europe ends, what its core is and where its peripheries are located.

Axes for possible panels:

1. The invention of European development policies: Between external and internal colonialism

A first axis will analyze the pre-history of European developmentalism. It will focus on the constitution of national and transnational sets of ideas, practices and networks of development in the context of late European imperialism. The guiding hypothesis is that, long before the Cold war, European ideas and practices of development were shaped in the context of European colonial ‘missions’ aimed at bringing ‘civilization’ and ‘progress’ to ‘underdeveloped’ regions. While these missions are generally thought of as primarily directed towards non-European territories and peoples, they also encompassed processes of ‘internal colonialism’ in the process of constructing European national states.
Papers in this axis are expected to tackle questions such as: How did this belief in development as part of a ‘civilizing mission’ emerge? How did similar ideas and practices interact and circulate across European empires? Finally, how did the external dimension of this early developmentalism – e.g. the construction of colonial empires in Africa or Asia – relate to internal development programs – e.g. the development of ‘backward’ regions? Papers exploring the intersection of these different processes, or of different colonial ‘missions’, are especially welcome.

2. The making of European peripheries: Development and shaping of European geographies

This axis will analyze development policies targeted at ‘peripheral’ European regions – be they on the European continent (such as Southern, Eastern or Northern Europe) or in other parts of the world (such as North Africa or the Middle East). More precisely, it aims at bringing together studies on different regions to illuminate how, through development policies, representations of what is ‘at the periphery’ and ‘at the core’ of Europe were produced and transformed. For the geography of development is not fixed once and for all: Rather, the point here is to stress how development itself produces certain geographies and ecologies, ultimately transforming what is regarded as ‘peripheral’ or ‘central’.
To illuminate this evolving geography, papers in this axis are invited to pay attention to the processes through which certain regions are, or are not, constructed as ‘central’ or as ‘peripheral’ – and thus in need of development. Case-studies might include regions formerly under European imperial rule (e.g. North Africa), as well as formerly strongly industrialized regions that experienced a brutal change in their status due to changes in economic and social circumstances (e.g. Wallonia). This should document how ideas, actors and tools of development change (for instance, with the emergence of environmental concerns within development policies), as well as how they circulate and contribute to redefining what is at the core and at the periphery of Europe.

3. Back to Europe: European integration as development policy

This axis will be dedicated to exploring the re-circulation of European developmentalism in the EEC/EU. Approaching the relations between development policies and European integration may, first, aim at reconnecting the history of European integration and the longer history of European formal or informal colonialism. Indeed, as the EEC/EU became a major player of international development, it was built on preexisting development ideas, instruments and networks reaching back to the ‘civilizing mission’ of European states. However, this axis primarily invites to reflect on the ways European (national or supranational) development practices have shaped the policies of the EEC/EU – not only in the field of international development, but also in a broader range of policy areas. For the ‘development’ of Europe as a whole was, from its early years, one of the crucial goals of European integration. Ideas, knowledge and instruments experienced elsewhere could thus be fruitfully re-mobilized to achieve this goal – for instance, agricultural policy, industrial policy or environmental protection – thus, more fundamentally, blurring the line between internal and external policies.
Papers in this axis are expected to explore different dimensions and contexts of this re-circulation processes. Of particular interest in this regard are the mediations allowing for this re-circulation to take place (for instance transnational communities of experts or international organizations). Likewise, we welcome papers investigating how the ideas, knowledge and instruments of development were transformed in the circulation process – for instance how ‘local’ knowledge gathered on the ground by development experts eventually altered ‘general’ ideas about development in Europe. Paying attention to this two-ways process of export-import will thus open new avenues to understand the entanglements of national, transnational and international processes in the history of European integration.

Please send proposals consisting of a title, an abstract (max. 300 words), names, affiliations as well as a short biographical description of authors until February 29th 2024 to: The preliminary program will be available in March 2024 and all applicants will be notified.

Contact (announcement)

Margot Lyautey (