International Organizations and the End of Empire in Twentieth-Century Africa

AHA Session 110
National History Center of the American Historical Association 4
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Nassau Suite B (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Elizabeth Borgwardt, Washington University in Saint Louis
Jennifer L. Foray, Purdue University

Session Abstract

The role played by international organizations during the process of decolonization is a significantly under-researched aspect of twentieth-century world history. Historians have portrayed decolonization as a historical moment shaped in large part by debates and conflicts between colonial powers and their subjects within a context of competing ideologies. However, the broader international sphere also served as an important forum for debating and conditioning the fate of empires. Focusing on three different case studies of African decolonization, this panel addresses the ways international organizations shaped imperial politics after the Second World War. Positioned between the renewed efforts of imperial powers to bring about social, economic and political development and mounting anti-colonial pressures, international organizations became privileged loci of debates about imperial legitimacy. These institutions, by reconfiguring the mechanisms and processes of imperial accountability and supervision, contributed to the radical restructuring of the colonial world, eventually leading colonial governments to devolve power and, in many cases, to grant independence to overseas territories.

The panel weaves together three different aspects of the part played by international organizations in the dismantlement of empires in colonial Africa: the development of a conflicting dialogue with colonial powers, the problems in drafting new mechanisms of supervision, and the attempts to reconfigure colonial policies. Jessica Pearson-Patel’s paper examines the struggle of the Belgian government in Africa to legitimize its rule over overseas territories at the United Nations (UN). She argues that the Belgian government hoped to reveal the hypocrisy of UN policy by showing that the protections offered to colonial peoples by the United Nations Charter applied only to populations living in traditional European or “formal” empires, leaving indigenous populations in independent countries to fend for themselves. Second, Annalisa Urbano’s paper centers on the role played by International Trusteeship System of the UN in the decolonization of former enemies’ colonies. Her paper looks at the tense relationship between different UN agents and illustrates how conflicting ideas of administration shaped the UN’s supervisory powers over communities under trusteeship. Finally, José Pedro Monteiro’s paper looks at the efforts of the International Labour Organization (ILO) to influence labor legislation and policies in the British and Portuguese empires. These efforts, he argues, were marked by moments of dispute and debate but also of cooperation that led both colonial powers to embrace a social policy that broadened the particularistic nature of the “native labor” policies characteristic of the interwar years.

This session is based on three projects researched as part of the Eighth International Seminar on Decolonization, sponsored by the National History Center and the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, and funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Drawing upon largely unpublished sources, the papers contribute to an expanding body of historical scholarship on the role of international organizations in facilitating the process of colonial reform, and ultimately, of decolonization.

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