Crisis-talk and the Ford Foundation in India

This summer I have been working towards completing the second chapter of my honors thesis in Science, Technology and Society. In this chapter, I trace the history of the Ford Foundation in India from 1951-1965, paying close attention to its 1959 Report on India’s Food Crisis and Steps to Meet It.

By so doing, I make two interrelated arguments. First, that the development experts working for the FF irrevocably conceived of India as a country of peasants, and believed that any departure from a village-centric, rural-oriented and food-first strategy of development would, therefore, be fundamentally flawed. The work of Arturo Escobar and James Ferguson on development discourse, and Daniel Immerwahr’s excellent study of the India’s community development program in the 1950s has proven particularly generative here.

The second argument I make is that it was in large part due to the Western development expert’s village fetish that the FF warned about a food crisis in India in 1959. The FF report reached the “inescapable conclusion” that if India was to continue pursuing rapid industrialization through the Second and Third five-year plans, as opposed to a food-first rural development program, it would face an unprecedented food crisis which no amount of foreign imports would be able to alleviate.

Crisis served as an incredibly potent tool to the FF to argue for what it considered the ideal kind of development in the Third World. They knew that the bigger the crisis, the bigger the potential for change. FF staff have written about the 1959 crisis and many other ones in India with remarkable self-awareness about crisis talk. Douglas Ensminger, for instance, who was the FF’s Chief Representative to India and Pakistan between 1954-70, complained that leaders of developing countries were riddled with complacency and that “timing and opportunity must either exist or be created to provide both the stimulus and guidance for change.”

Completing the chapter proved more difficult than I had anticipated due to the closure of archives and libraries, but the archivists I have spoken to have gone out of their way to facilitate my research. I am incredibly grateful to Dean Hargett at the State Historical Society of Missouri, Bethany Antos at the Rockefeller Archives, and Gary Barnhart at the Montana State University Library for making their collections accessible even during a pandemic.

Some records from the State Historical Society of Missouri’s collection on Douglas Ensminger, courtesy of Dean Hargett, Acquisition Librarian.

Soon I will be switching gears to work on a different chapter, which looks at the normative makings of ‘crisis’ by examining computer models that development economists used to declare a food crisis in India between 1964-5, partly motivated by their frustration with India’s industry-first strategy of development. More on that would be found in my next blog post!

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About Tathagat Bhatia

I am a rising senior (C'21) from Lucknow, India, studying history of science and technology, and Russian. I am especially interested in environmental history, histories of empire, and post-colonial histories of South Asia. My project explores how development experts in post-World War II United States exported their expertise to India, particularly in the domains of food and agriculture.