Reforming the Empire. Education, Development and International Cooperation in French West Africa, 1945-1961

« Ambizione » Project financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. More information are available here

ANS (Dakar), 1 R 112, Éducation de base

The objective of this project is to understand how the link was forged between the rise in educational levels and the economic and social modernization in countries of the Global South. More specifically, the research focuses on the actions taken by Unesco and the French colonial administration in West Africa between 1945 and 1961. Indeed, the initiatives conducted by these stakeholders offer a fertile ground for examining how education became one of the key issues of international and imperial development aid policies in the twentieth century.

The project involves the cross-referencing of sources from international, national and private archives located in Europe, the United States and Senegal. It is structured around three complementary research questions. First of all, it traces the origins of the « educational campaign » launched by UNESCO after the Second World War. The research examines the doctrines and normative frameworks that were developed internationally during that era, as well as the technical assistance programmes implemented in the Global South, particularly in colonial Africa. The second leg of the project consists of analyzing the competition and complementarities that developed between UNESCO and the Ministry of Overseas France at a pivotal point in the process of decolonization and the Cold War. Focusing on the emergence of trans-imperial cooperation in the field of education, it sheds light on the circulation of experts between the international and colonial arenas while highlighting the struggles over the monopoly of knowledge about « native education ». Finally, the third theme examines the « fundamental education » experiments carried out by the French colonial administration in West and Equatorial Africa from the late 1940sonward. On the basis of several case studies, it analyses how education was redefined with a view to raising the living standards of local populations by combating illiteracy and promoting new hygiene, nutritional, agricultural and housing practices. The research project also discusses the limitations of these « colonial development » policies as well as the profound reconfigurations that resulted from the implementation of the first technical assistance programmes in independent African countries.

From a historiographical point of view, this project, which is intended to result in a 250-page monograph, aims to provide insight into the place given in the international and imperial development aid policies to education and childhood related issues, such as health and social protection. It will also provide an innovative approach to the history of international organizations and transnational movements, particularly in their interactions with European colonial administrations and newly independent African countries. Finally, this research seeks to offer an original contribution to the so-called « global history » by analyzing the role played by education in the exchanges, transfers, and connections that structure the process of globalization.

A new monogrpah on this topic – entitled Missions modernisatrices. La France et l’Unesco en Afrique coloniale, 1945-1961 – is forthcoming (2022).

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