10 March 2020

Nestlé and the Business of Development

In recent decades, multinational companies have frequently been in the spotlight for their social, economic, and environmental impacts in the developing world. Yet, we still know little about how businesses have been involved in the politics of international development in the more distant past. In her PhD thesis, Lola Wilhelm investigates this issue through the emblematic case of Nestlé, using a long-term historical framework that stretches from the 1880s to the 1970s. She finds that in some regions Nestlé’s expansion was not just driven by market considerations but also aided by the development agenda.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

When I started the PhD, I was interested in the history of development and humanitarian aid, international organisations, and food and hunger policies. The idea of working more closely on business involvement in these histories then took shape progressively. I was intrigued by the tension between the recent criticism against the activities of multinational firms in the developing world, and the fact that on closer examination, the same multinationals have in fact had a longstanding influence in many fields of international development, from nutrition to agricultural modernisation. I realised that historical research on this topic was scarce, and once I managed to obtain access to Nestlé’s historical archives, it became the focus of my thesis. In the thesis I look more specifically at Nestlé’s involvement in three interdependent fields of international development: agriculture, public health and medicine, and humanitarian aid.

Can you describe your thesis questions? 

The main questions I try to answer in my research are: To what extent have multinational firms been involved in shaping the ideas and practices of international development since the late 19th century? How did other actors of development – national and colonial governments, international and non-governmental organisations, scientific communities – react to corporate participation in their respective fields, and how did they seek to negotiate and define this participation? How did corporate activity in development travel and adapt across different local and international contexts?

How do you approach these questions, methodologically speaking?

As is the case for many international historians, most of my work took place in multiple archives: the Nestlé archives, the Swiss federal archives, the French colonial archives, and the archives of international organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, to name a few of them. There is still little historical scholarship on the involvement of multinational firms in public international affairs, in part because access to their archives remains difficult in many cases. My thesis contributes to ongoing efforts to mobilise such archives and address their possible silences.

What are your major findings?

One of the most important takeaways of my thesis, I think, is that corporate participation in international development policy has been historically contingent on long-term and complex collaborations between businesses on the one hand, and more conventional protagonists of development on the other hand, including governments, scientists, and international organisations. These actors often welcomed and encouraged Nestlé’s participation in their own field, even though occasionally they could be suspicious and even hostile toward the firm. Understanding these mechanisms affords us a more nuanced view of the historical role of multinational businesses in international public policy.

A second important contribution of the thesis is that it brings to light how Nestlé’s participation in development changed and adapted to different local and international circumstances. I found that Nestlé’s development activities were first put to the test in what I call the “Swiss laboratory”, from the late 19th century to the interwar period. They were subsequently transposed to new scales and spaces, in particular late colonial and early postcolonial West Africa. What is peculiar about this phenomenon is that whereas we generally understand the expansion of multinational firms as being driven by market considerations first and foremost, in some regions of the world Nestlé’s expansion was also aided by the development agenda. 

How can your research findings serve policy reflection and action?

The objective of my research is neither to attack nor to defend multinationals, but to show that the role they have historically played in international development has hinged on complex interactions with public policy players, on multiple local and international scales. Considering the ongoing debates over the roles and responsibilities of transnational firms, not least when it comes to global environmental issues, I think that understanding the complex historical mechanisms of corporate participation in international policy can help us put things in perspective. 

What are you doing now after the PhD?

After a stint as a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, I recently joined the University of Geneva as a postdoctoral researcher. I work on a Swiss National Science Foundation project that scrutinises curable yet historically enduring infectious diseases, in particular syphilis. I will also be teaching for the Executive Education programme Advocacy in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute.

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Lola Wilhelm defended her PhD thesis in International History in October 2019. Professor Amalia Ribi Forclaz presided the committee, which included Professor Davide Rodogno, thesis director, and Professor Anne-Emanuelle Birn, Centre for Critical Development Studies, University of Toronto, Canada.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Wilhelm, Lola. “The Business of Development: Nestlé’s Involvement in Agriculture, Public Health and Humanitarian Relief, 1880s-1970s.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Prachaya Roekdeethaweesab/