Four white men taking pictures of an African tribeswoman holding an infant by a pond in an open savanna.
Photo Safari, Tanzania, 1976

Colonialism: origins of a development narrative

Colonialism created a development context based on foreign expansion.

So where did the story, the narrative, of Development come from? To discover this, we need to go back to origins - where did it all begin?

Economic and social change have characterised societies throughout history. But conceptualising this change as ‘development’ or as a phenomenon that ‘should’ happen, is relatively new.

Particular modes of development have been promoted at different times as a way to transform human societies.


Development cannot be properly understood without placing it in the context of Colonialism.

Henry Bernstein has defined Colonialism as: “The political control of peoples and territories by foreign states, whether accompanied by significant permanent settlement (‘settler colonies’) or not” (Bernstein 2000, p. 242).

It took a range of forms from the 15th century. From the 1800s to the mid 1900s, a systematic state-based expansion of European powers and state formation occurred in colonies of Africa and Asia. This period of colonial expansion was driven by industrial capitalism.

Countries we refer to as ‘developing countries’ or the ‘global south’ or the ‘majority world’ bear the traces of colonial impact. Colonialism has affected governance structures, economic systems, the entrenchment of elites, and has led to the imposition of new laws, religions and norms.

Your task

Recall Adichie’s idea of the single story and how our perceptions of others may be distorted.

Consider how colonialism may have affected the peoples of ‘developing’ nations. What do you imagine might be the experience of the colonised?

Share your thoughts in the comments.


Bernstein H 2000, ‘Colonialism, capitalism, development’ in T Allen & A Thomas (eds) Poverty and development into the 21st century, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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Gender and Development

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