Oxford Department of International Development

The history of the Oxford Department of International Development, formerly Queen Elizabeth House, represents a significant element in the protracted process by which Oxford is coming to terms with the British colonial aftermath. 

Between the wars, the University hosted non-degree training courses for probationers of the Indian Civil Service and the Colonial Services, part of a patchwork of late colonial training that also encompassed Rhodes House, the Indian Institute, and the Imperial Forestry Institute. 

After the Second World War, anticipating the need for a more professional colonial civil service, the University established the Committee for Colonial Studies in 1943, the Institute of Colonial Studies (ICS) in 1945, and a professorship of Colonial Economics in 1946.   

The immediate post-war Labour government headed by Clement Atlee had initiated a process of imperial disengagement starting with Indian independence in 1947, leading to the creation of the Commonwealth in 1949. However, this process was redirected by Winston Churchill’s second administration, from 1951 to 1955, which favoured a different strategy: the Conservatives believed that even though the formal empire was contracting, new economic ties and defence treaties would permit Britain to maintain indirect influence over the newly independent countries.

In 1952, the Colonial Office – headed by Lord Chandos, then secretary of state for the colonies – proposed to establish a new college at Oxford specifically for colonial officers. Its geostrategic purpose was explained in a 1953 letter from Lord Chandos and Viscount Halifax, then University chancellor, to the South African mining magnate Ernest Oppenheimer soliciting his support.

‘… the future political, social and economic relations between the constituent parts of the Commonwealth and Colonial Empire have become the focal point in the maintenance of world peace, and of the defence of the free world. …In many regions new, and as yet untried, nationalisms are threatening the very foundations of fruitful economic intercourse and stable development. … The British Government desires to maintain, and to strengthen, the spiritual, cultural and economic ties between Britain itself and the Colonies and associated territories of the Commonwealth, by ensuring a steady flow… of persons in every respect qualified to deal with the problems of government, industry, commerce, and cultural and social change.’ 

The college was ultimately downgraded to a ‘house’. Queen Elizabeth House was to be an independent foundation affiliated to the University, funded by the government for the first decade of its institutional life. It was constituted by Royal Charter in 1954 as a residential centre which people concerned with the study of Commonwealth affairs could visit in order to make contacts and exchange ideas. Lewis Wilcher, an Australian Rhodes Scholar and previously colonial officer in the Sudan, was appointed as the first warden by a governing body made up of eminent persons appointed by the University and the Colonial Office.

However, after the Bandung Non-Aligned Conference of 1955 and the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Tory dream of informal imperialism was already a lost cause. In 1964 a Ministry of Overseas Development (ODM) was created by the new Labour government to replace the Colonial Office and establish a new relationship based on ‘development cooperation’ not only with the newly independent Commonwealth but also poor countries worldwide. The new ministry was an explicitly social-democratic alternative to the post-colonial Conservative strategy.  

The ODM continued to fund the training of Commonwealth administrators at QEH, but the University reneged on its commitment to assume long-term responsibility for the house, although it did support the ICS, which had become an integral part of QEH in 1961. Without core funding from Whitehall or established status within the University – or indeed a clear academic mission – the house was under existential threat by the mid-1960s. Fortunately, it proved politically impossible simply to close a chartered body such as QEH.

So instead the University appointed Paul Streeten, a senior Oxford economist with extensive experience of international development institutions as both warden of QEH and director of the ICS in 1968. Under his leadership, QEH underwent a radical pivot in its focus. While some of the old activities remained, including a Foreign Office-financed course for young diplomats from newly independent countries and a visiting programme for senior Indian civil servants, Streeten moved QEH away from the British neocolonial project, engaging intellectually with the emerging field of development studies and institutionally with the United Nations. This entailed an explicitly postcolonial view of economic development, based on national independence, state-led industrialisation, and poverty reduction. In addition, QEH provided a temporary home for academics from Bangladesh and elsewhere fleeing political persecution.

Streeten had attracted a group of younger scholars as students and research associates, including Keith Griffin, Sanjaya Lall, Deepak Nayyar, and Frances Stewart. Their contributions in the 1970s included analysis of foreign direct investment (Lall and Streeten), technological learning and capabilities (Lall), employment and appropriate technology (Stewart), and the impact of aid (Griffin, with John Enos). QEH came to spearhead research into the important equity dimension of basic needs and employment in economic development policy, which was to evolve into the ‘human development’ approach adopted by the United Nations.

Clearly, development economics was the dominant discipline at QEH in the 1970s and 80s, although there were a number of ICS scholars working on colonial history, such as Colin Newberry and Stanley Trapido. Moreover, a multidisciplinary approach began to emerge. On the one hand, these development economists took a broad view of their subject, integrating political, social, and ethical issues into a policy-oriented approach. Their focus was very different from that of more ‘mainstream’ Oxford colleagues, mainly located at Nuffield, whose theory was neoclassical and whose policy views were conservative. One the other hand, a number of highly creative groups from other disciplines, including history, politics, and anthropology found a supportive home in the QEH building on St Giles. One such group was composed of historians and anthropologists from across the University working on Southern Africa (including Terry Ranger, Stanley Trapido, William Beinart, Megan Vaughan and Gavin Williams) who had changed the focus of the ICS with their radical critique of apartheid.

These scholars laid the foundations of critical approaches to development economics and to the study of colonialism that eventually led to the emergence of QEH, in the closing decades of the 20th century, as the leading UK centre for academic research and postgraduate teaching in its field. By this time, QEH had transitioned to the present Oxford Department of International Development (ODID). The ‘house’ had become a full department of the University, having eschewed its status as an independent foundation in 1994 by relinquishing the royal charter that had set QEH up as a neocolonial institution.

ODID’s critical approach to teaching and research in development includes the examination of colonialism and its long aftermath as well as decolonising development studies as an intellectual project. Indeed, a founding rationale of the department’s flagship MPhil in Development Studies, established in 1996, was to reflect critically on the links between colonialism, postcoloniality and the project of ‘Third World’ development as a neocolonial enterprise.

In the past couple of years, we have stepped up efforts to decolonise our curriculum and pedagogy, mindful of global knowledge hierarchies, dominant epistemologies, and hegemonic developmental discourses. We also seek to address explicitly the question of race, postcolonialism, and development. This includes initiatives to explore how race plays out in the institutional setting of the department in knowledge production and transmission, notably through interactive student workshops on ‘Identity and your learning’, conducted by Departmental Lecturers Dan Hodgkinson and Mihika Chatterjee and Associate Professor of African Studies Simukai Chigudu.

These initiatives also go beyond the MPhil and encompass our other degrees. For instance, for the MSc in Migration Studies, our Departmental Lecturer Gunvor Jonsson won a Special Commendation Award in 2018 as part of the University's Enhancing Teaching Programme for her work on decolonising the curriculum.

In addition, Simukai Chigudu has been a key voice in the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) campaign since its inception. During the summer of 2020, he wrote frequently in the press about his experiences of RMF and as one of very few black African professors at the University. He has encouraged us to think collectively about how we, as an institution, both deal with the experience of our minority staff and then seek to implement institutional change.

In 2020, we established an Equality and Diversity Committee to advance our anti-racist agenda, with the aim of reflecting on our everyday practice and on the ways in which we teach development and its connections to our colonial past.  With the assistance of a newly appointed equality and diversity officer, our ambitions for the future include:

  • empowering underrepresented groups by creating and facilitating spaces to meet and talk about equality and anti-racism
  • diversifying recruitment and selection processes for both students and staff
  • improving representation of BAME staff and students in the departmental landscape (through images in the department, appointments and promotions)
  • improving equality and diversity channels through better communication, for example a dedicated section on equality and diversity in the departmental newsletter
  • introducing anonymised reporting of any incidents, should our members feel disinclined to make formal complaints for fear of being publicly exposed - iInformation gathered in this way will be used to monitor areas of improvement
  • offering training for staff and students, not just to tick boxes, but as an ongoing process of creating an inclusive culture


We will consult with students and staff in the coming months to ensure we have a clear picture of where we are starting from as the basis for our EDI strategy. We are aware that we have much work to do.

You can read more about the history of the department.