Daniel Immerwahr

Daniel Immerwahr

Associate Professor
Department of History
Northwestern University
225 Harris Hall
1881 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208

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Email: daniel.immerwahr at

Quests for Community: The United States, Community Development, and the World, 1935-1965

Dissertation Committee: David A. Hollinger (chair), Robin Einhorn, Peter Evans

In recent decades, we have become aware of the blindness, arrogance, and recklessness that have accompanied attempts by industrialized nations to develop the global South. Too often, we have seen, aid and development have been little more than top-down attempts to impose abstract notions of “modernity” upon poorer nations, with no acknowledgment of the importance of local variation or of cultural traditions. I have discovered, however, that from the very beginning of the United States’ engagement with overseas development, many of the largest and most influential government aid programs were grassroots, localist, and anti-technocratic in their stated orientation. The aid officials presiding over such projects, often experts on agriculture or rural society, entered the field of foreign relations with a set of preoccupations that differed from those of modernization theory. As a rule, they privileged small-scale works, local knowledge, democratic participation, and communal solidarity at the level of the village. In collaboration with Third World policymakers, they designed a political project—community development—that came to hold sway throughout the global South in the 1950s. Community development programs in a number of countries (the U.S. posted advisers to programs in 47 countries by 1956) regularly commanded heavy investments from the United States, host-country governments, international bodies such as the United Nations and SEATO, and philanthropic bodies such as the Ford Foundation and CARE. While community development certainly did not achieve all that it sought to, it reshaped politics and development in a number of Third World countries, including the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Iran, Colombia, and Vietnam, not only spawning thousands of small-scale aid projects but also leading in some key cases to the democratization of local governments.


Following the story of community development has taken me to archives in India and the Philippines. Foreign sources have been vital to my research because community development was a decidedly transnational movement. Rather than designing aid programs in the United States and exporting them, U.S. community experts lived in rural villages and foreign capitals and worked closely with their host-country counterparts. Working from an international archival base allowed me to situate aid programs within the political landscape of Asia, and to recognize the ways in which localist programs tended to uphold rural social hierarchies. At the same time as it has encouraged me to travel abroad, my research has highlighted the experiences of historical actors who do not always register in our narratives about development: missionaries, anthropologists, rural sociologists, and non-governmental organizations. Investigating their experiences has allowed me to tell a story about postwar aid that moves the focus away from high-ranking officials in Washington and puts it on the men and women with on-the-ground experience in international development.


My transnational evidence changes how we think about a number of important topics in twentieth-century history. It challenges the current preoccupation with modernization theory in the U.S. foreign relations literature by pointing out the substantial constituency in the development community for anti-technocratic, grassroots programs. Seeing the extent of communitarianism among development experts also drew my attention to the broad interest in small groups and small communities that, I found, undergirded much of midcentury social science and social theory. Such an interest was not merely methodological: intellectuals in those decades envisioned small communities as bulwarks against the excesses of the capitalist marketplace. Finally, I have discovered that many of the architects of the U.S. War on Poverty in the 1960s had some experience with overseas community development and designed the Johnson administration’s domestic antipoverty programs to resemble community development, with mixed results.