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"Le Savoir et le Faire": Decolonisation and Geneva as a Third World Development Studies Hub, c. 1961-1981

Funding organisation: Swiss National Science Foundation, DOC.CH scheme
Timeline: September 2023-August 2026
Budget: CHF 213'898
Keywords: development, Third World, decolonization, history of ideas, social history


In 1961, the Centre genevois pour la formation de cadres africains (IUED) opened its doors. The responsible actors described this as an act of solidarity by a non-colonial and neutral Switzerland with recently independent nations needing development assistance to assert their freedom. In the following decades, IUED became a place known for robust debate, bringing together a vibrant and multi-disciplinary communauté de pensée of Third World anticolonial and anti-authoritarian activists, state functionaries and like-minded intellectuals united in their commitment to the transformation of postcolonial societies, and divided in their approaches. My dissertation studies the people that populated IUED, their ideas and trajectories, and the socio-political context in which they worked. I explore what these histories can tell us about the larger meaning of decolonisation and development in this period. By examining an extensive and rich body of archival resources, including the oral history testimonies of former professors, staff, and students, my research weaves together social, intellectual and institutional histories. In particular, my dissertation contributes towards a better understanding of development in the wake of decolonisation by mapping the worlds of people from and concerned with the Third World, who formulated new development strategies beyond economic growth to overcome socio-economic and political injustices.

I propose that studying IUED opens a window into the worlds of students and scholars who were seeking alternative ways of developing newly independent nations. The main aim of my project is to explore what kind of development knowledge, in what socio-political context and by whom was produced at the IUED between 1961 and 1981, and what this history of the IUED might tell us about the wider meaning of decolonisation and development during this period. IUED’s aim was to equip Third World students with the knowledge deemed necessary to transform and manage post-colonial societies. However, it quickly became a well-known meeting place for people from and concerned with the Third World, as well as a place for lively exchange and debate. Those present in Geneva often reflected political events in other parts of the world, and included activists from many African countries, including Eduardo Mondlane and François Lumumba, but also from Latin America, for instance Paulo Freire or Celia Guevara.


Research Objectives

For the people at IUED, Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (1961) left an irreversible mark, announcing the need for a radically new beginning. My study therefore seeks to complicate our understanding of postcolonial development by tracing the worlds of people originating from and concerned with the Third World, who have formulated new development strategies that go beyond economic growth to overcome socio-economic and political injustices. As many oral accounts of the early days of IUED reveal, the daily encounters and discussions with Third World thinkers and activists led to a ‘decentring’ of mainstream thinking and an intellectual effervescence that manifested itself, for example, in an avant-garde ecological critique of industrialisation. At the same time, my project responds to a second historiographical challenge: historians have yet to study how, in what context and by whom knowledge about development was produced. Thirdly, my study sheds light on the initial milieu from which, a few decades later, a major current of development criticism would emanate, culminating in Gilbert Rist’s Le Développement: Histoire d'une croyance occidentale (1996). Lastly, since many of the people that frequented IUED were also practitioners and activists, I argue that thinking with IUED’s archival material is an original way to overcome the often-assumed dichotomy between development ideas and practice. Practice and activism informed writing and teaching at IUED. This dialectic also was a primary concern in a foundational IUED publication, Le Savoir et le Faire (Bungener 1975), which posited that development thinking and practice were fundamentally ethnocentric and ignored cultural difference and plurality.

Related content

Nicolas Hafner was awarded the 2022 Arditi Prize in International Relations for his MA dissertation: How private companies lobbied for better investment protection during decolonisation


Photo credit/source: Students of IUED at its ten-year anniversary in 1972, IUED 651/3.

Principal investigator