- Technology and Ethical Idealism: A History of Development in the Netherlands East Indies
Suzanne Moon focuses on agricultural sciences and extension services in the Dutch East Indies during the early twentieth century. Although her topic may strike some readers as narrow, this is one of those monographs that will complicate the major interpretations in its field. It is a nicely crafted and well-supported study of interest to scholars who study the history of science, technology, and the environment in colonial settings, and it also deserves the attention of development theorists.
Most scholars believe that development efforts by colonial governments consisted mainly of the imposition of top-down solutions on powerless subjects by states determined to centralize authority and advance capitalism. Such efforts tended to be informed by arrogance and racism. Among many examples, the best-known is the Groundnut Scheme in British Tanganyika. There are now a number of studies like Moon’s, however, which indicate that our picture of colonial development needs to become more nuanced. Moon reveals that in the Dutch East Indies many colonial scientists and development policymakers sought to distribute plants and knowledge in ways that were sensitive to the needs and perceptions of indigenous small-scale farmers. This was known as “ethical idealism,” an approach that remained relatively stable from the 1890s through the 1930s even though its implementation had to be tailored to changing circumstances. Ethical idealists were not the unheralded saints of colonialism; they tended to be paternalists who kept the local people at arms’ length. Still, ethical idealists hoped that better plants and better education might improve the lives of small-scale farmers, so that they would not have to go to work for colonial factories and plantations.
Moon explores the history of ethical idealism through traditional sources—official publications and archival documents as well as newspapers and memoirs—and she engages helpfully with secondary works in development theory and STS. As in many other colonies, liberals believed in enlightened means of improving the lives of colonists, while conservatives believed that anymeans that increased overall colonial revenues would eventually improve peasant lives. Conservative beliefs were challenged strongly in the mid-nineteenth century by K. F. Holle, a tea planter who worked to improve Sundanese agriculture through demonstrations, education, and trust. Later, Holle’s work inspired Dutch policymakers to institute his insights at the state level.
At the turn of the century, liberals were in the ascendancy among policymakers in the East Indies, and in 1904 the state founded a colonial department of agriculture. Liberalism then took a “technological turn” [End Page 206] when the founding director of the department, Melchior Treub, instituted rigorous plant-breeding and a program of demonstrations. He was criticized by liberals, however, for not following Holle’s example and connecting the department’s research directly with farmers, who were not involved in the experiments. Instead, indigenous demonstrators were hired and trained only to show the results of their work. Subsequent directors of the agriculture department in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s did more to involve small-scale farmers through more highly interactive extension services, and extension agents, plant breeders, and agronomists also did more to consider the ecological and economic needs of these farmers in an early version of the “appropriate technology” movement.
Not everybody was satisfied. Plantation owners complained that the small-scale farmers held back the quality and quantity of crops, while the sons of these farmers who became educated tended to drift away, finding employment on the plantations or even in the agriculture department itself. Moreover, the considerable political unrest in the Dutch East Indies undermined claims by many liberals that the agriculture department was helping to create a happier peasantry. One liberal economist, J. H. Boeke, criticized the department’s efforts, arguing that scientists and extension agents had been applying models of European development to peasants who were quite different socially. According to Boeke, the Dutch East Indies had a “dual economy,” a paternalistic claim that nonetheless sought to induce policymakers and scientists...