H-Diplo Article Review 999 on Delehanty. “From Modernization to Villagization: The World Bank and Ujamaa.”

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo Article Review 999

18 November 2020

Sean Delehanty.  “From Modernization to Villagization:  The World Bank and Ujamaa.”  Diplomatic History 44:2 (2020):  289–314.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhz074.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Dayna Barnes | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Eric Burton, University of Innsbruck

When World Bank president Robert McNamara travelled to Tanzania in 1970 to discuss the prospects for new investments, his travel briefings contained information on Tanzanian politicians and foreign policies, various development projects and the government’s policy of building a Tanzanian version of socialism–ujamaa.  While the concept was always contested and fuzzy (and “lack[ed] clear definition,” as one memo in McNamara’s portfolio pointed out[1]), ujamaa was definitely marked by values of egalitarianism, modesty and self-reliance that contradicted the market-based rationality that the World Bank stood for. Nevertheless, during McNamara’s presidency, Tanzania became a prime partner, inspiration, and model for the Bank’s activities.  In his article “From Modernization to Villagization: The World Bank and Ujamaa,” Sean Delehanty shows how and why this close partnership emerged and, eventually, crumbled.

Based on World Bank records, including personal notes scribbled down by McNamara himself, as well as personal recollections of other former officials, Delehanty suggests examining the “role that existing anti-poverty efforts like ujamaa played in providing a template for what anti-poverty lending could look like for the Bank” (292). Delehanty’s argument is innovative and relevant because it turns upside down an assumption that has long been recognized as problematic and simplistic yet has proven remarkably durable: the idea that development policies are first thought out in the colonial metropoles or headquarters of aid agencies and then implemented in the periphery.[2]  Against this view, Delehanty seeks to demonstrate that the World Bank’s policies were informed by conceptual and practical innovations in postcolonial Tanzania.  His argument focusses on explaining why the Bank supported ujamaa, which functions ujamaa fulfilled for the bank, and how the discursive overlaps eventually vanished and made way for a narrative in which ujamaa and the World Bank stood for incompatible rationalities.

Delehanty first analyses why Bank officials were interested in the policies of a poor and peripheral country such as Tanzania, a country whose ruling party had pledged to build socialism in 1967.  Delehanty is not convinced by the “Tanzaphilia” argument that World Bank officials uncritically fell for ujamaa policies or President Julius Nyerere’s charisma.  Rather, he suggests, “ujamaa served an important function for Bank officials in the 1970s as they struggled to design a program for action around the demands for a focus on anti-poverty development” (295).  Following an established body of work on Western development discourses and the Bank’s history,[3] Delehanty contends that the “twin crises of poverty and population” (301) played a large role in Bank officials’ search for an alternative to modernization theory and its assumptions of trickle-down effects. However, as Delehanty admits, a country as sparsely populated as Tanzania and ruled by a devout Catholic was far from being the perfect match for the Bank’s newly discovered neo-Malthusian drive for population control.  This serves as an indicator that the overlaps and borrowings in terms of policies and visions were partial at best.

In terms of actors, Delehanty focusses on McNamara and Nyerere, but he also productively reads their thoughts and influence as part of a broader current of critiques of modernization theory and trickle-down concepts of development interventions.  McNamara’s predecessor George Woods had already paved the way for the Bank’s later commitment to anti-poverty lending (297).  Additionally, critiques of other international organizations such as the ILO (296) fostered a sense of crisis engendered by population growth and the anti-rural bias of modernization theory.

In a second argumentative thread, Delehanty shows how this embrace of Tanzania also allowed the Bank to become less dependent on former colonial officials who made up a large part of the Bank’s cohort of experts on agricultural development (300), a fact that greatly concerned McNamara. Beyond the narrower parameters of development policies, Tanzania’s positioning as a champion of non-alignment allowed the Bank to avoid Cold War divides (301).  Given that Tanzania was openly socialist (though at a distance to Soviet Communism) and the People’s Republic of China was one of the country’s closest allies in the early 1970s (a fact that remains sidelined in the article), this was an important aspect of the World Bank’s geopolitical maneuvering.

In the third part of the argument, Delehanty shows how the Bank’s “return to orthodoxy” (309) resulted from disillusions with ujamaa’s performance.  In this part of the article it becomes evident that this is primarily a history of changing views of World Bank actors.  Apart from president Nyerere, virtually the only other Tanzanian mentioned by name is political scientist Severine Rugumamu.  To be sure, Delehanty does demonstrate a robust understanding of the historiography on Tanzanian socialism.  Still, the article’s relative neglect of Tanzanian perspectives on the World Bank comes at a cost.  In privileging and sometimes coming close to reproducing the Bank’s views on the weaknesses and failures of World Bank-supported projects in particular (manpower shortages, “widespread managerial weakness,” 306) and Tanzanian policies in general (307), the essay excludes alternative narratives of why—and how—ujamaa and World Bank projects failed, or rather, were seen as failures.

Delehanty’s analytical focus on discourses as well as actors and their motives is mirrored by the fact that numbers are all but absent from this article. As a result, one learns little about World Bank projects and investments in Tanzania.  It remains unclear to what extent the rhetorical shift towards pro-poor spending and ‘equity’ also translated into allocative shifts or a qualitative change of approaches on the ground both before and after the shift towards pro-poor lending.  Delehanty’s short analysis of the Kigoma Regional Project, actually called Kigoma Regional Integrated Development Programme (KRDP), is a case in point. The KRDP was one in a series of regional (rather than local or national) efforts to coordinate development measures—an approach that the World Bank had already tested elsewhere.  A closer look at the history of the Bank’s engagement (and perceived failures) in Tanzania before 1967 potentially also yields insights into the supposed policy shift.  In fact, the history of the Bank’s interventions and learning from failures begins well before the 1970s.  According to one study of World Bank-supported programme in the Kigoma region, socialist villagization also appealed to Bank officials because villages (in contrast to dispersed households) allowed for a calculation of inputs and outputs as well as rates of return on investments; village-based institutions also seemed to be a remedy to problems of supervision that had arisen in agricultural smallholder projects that the Bank had been supporting in the 1960s.[4]

As Delehanty shows, even without references to the Bank’s activities in Tanzania in the 1960s, hopes of this kind were an integral part of McNamara’s efforts to “sell” poverty to conservative bondholders (299), as were his references the supposed willingness of Tanzanian citizens to contribute self-help labor that would render the Bank’s investments cost-effective. The state’s calls for ‘voluntary’ contributions of labour echoed colonial efforts to mobilize the population; and just like in colonial times, calls for voluntary labour led to coercion on the one hand and the population evading top-down initiatives, on the other.

When McNamara’s tenure ended in 1981, pro-market Bank staffers made sure that further lending to debt-ridden countries such as Tanzania was tied to an acceptance of neoliberal structural adjustment and a focus on economic growth.  Delehanty concludes that this neoliberal turn in international development was not rooted in punitive foreign policy maneuvers of President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to re-establish control over what he calls the “developing world.” Rather, the shift to neoliberalism “had its roots within the development agencies themselves” (309) and preceded diplomatic measures of Western governments.

In sum, Delehanty’s well-argued article advances our understanding of the closely entangled dynamics of development thinking and practices in central institutions such as the World Bank and countries that became donors’ darlings such as Tanzania.  Just like other donor agencies and individuals both within and beyond Tanzania, McNamara and the World Bank appropriated or highlighted some elements of ujamaa—most notably, the focus on the rural poor as producers and, to a lesser extent, beneficiaries of state welfare services—and neglected aspects such as the egalitarian thrust or critiques of global inequality and dependence on export agriculture. Delehanty reads his case study as an example of the “same cycle of enthusiasm, over-commitment, and disappointment” that has informed the workings of international development since its inception.  Unfortunately, the development sector’s structural amnesia will probably mean that the honeymoon period between the World Bank and Tanzania is not remembered in all its contradictions as laid out it this article.


Eric Burton is Assistant Professor in Global History at the Department of Contemporary History at the University of Innsbruck.  He is author of a forthcoming monograph on Tanzania’s relations with the two German states (In Diensten des Afrikanischen Sozialismus, Berlin/Boston: DeGruyter Oldenbourg) and has published articles on African student migration and the entangled global histories of socialism and development in the Journal of Global History, Cold War History, and Jahrbuch für Kommunismusforschung. His current research project deals with the regional and global entanglements of African liberation struggles in Cairo, Accra and Dar es Salaam in the 1950s and 1960s.


[1] World Bank Group Archives (Washington, D.C., United States), WB IBRD/IDA 03 EXC-10-4540S, Travel briefings, 1772531, “Travel briefs, Tanzania,” “Ujamaa Villages,” 23 December 1969.

[2] The most forceful rebuttal of this unidirectional way of understanding policy changes is probably Monica M. Van Beusekom, Negotiating Development: African Farmers and Colonial Experts at the Office Du Niger, 1920-1960 (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2002).

[3] Patrick Allan Sharma, Robert McNamara’s Other War: The World Bank and International Development (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017); Matthias Schmelzer, The Hegemony of Growth: The OECD and the Making of the Economic Growth Paradigm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Stephen Macekura, Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Rob Konkel, “The Monetization of Global Poverty: The Concept of Poverty in World Bank History, 1944–90,” Journal of Global History 9:2 (2014): 276–300; Marc Frey, Sönke Kunkel, and Corinna R. Unger, eds. International Organizations and Development: 1945–1990 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008).

[4] Lizz L. Kleemeier, “Integrated Rural Development in Tanzania: The Role of Foreign Assistance, 1972-1982” (PhD Thesis, University of California, 1984), 108.