Abstract: The Impact of Colonial Development Debates on the HR Policies of Imperial Business in Ghana and Nigeria, 1940-1960

Stephanie Decker


Colonial practices of managing labor were becoming the target of critical scrutiny by the Colonial Office and the wider public in the middle of the twentieth century. Even though the Human Relations School had yet not become as widely influential as it would be in later decades, the way conceptions of managing labor were shifting in North America and Western Europe was influential in the debates on colonial development. This was linked to the fear of greater mobilization of workers through trade unions and Communist groups. In the British colonial empire, caught between a brief resurgence of an imperial sense of mission and its eventual decline, this led to a politicization of labor relations in public and private businesses, which shaped the emerging employment relationships in these emerging states in a variety of ways. Finally, it served to de-politicize difficult issues of social development in favor of allocating entitlements that could not feasibly be extended to the working population at large. This paper presents evidence from the corporate archives of five British companies active in West Africa: two banks, two trading companies, and the largest mining firm in Ghana. It also draws on reports published by the Colonial Office on the issues of labor and social development. Over twenty years, a clear shift from disinterest to paternalism and further toward a more limited conception of advancing Africans within the economy is evident, and the way this developed in different sectors of the economy had a long-term effect on how employment practices developed in West Africa, which encapsulated the shift from ethnocentric toward polycentric staffing policies described by Howard Perlmutter.