Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

Africa Desk Opens

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: the African Union resides here, as does the United Nations' Economic Commission for Africa as well as numerous international NGOs. The Africa (Sub Sahara) Regional Desk of the IISH will also set up its operating base here in 2011. Although the Africa Desk represents a completely new initiative, its task reflects the traditional aims and objectives of the Institute: to safeguard materials from opposition and other social movements, thereby ensuring that they are not destroyed or lost.
In 1935, the IISH was founded with this specific mission in mind. Today, there is a pressing need to preserve and maintain documents on social history from Africa. Local archives in the region are not always equipped to do so or there may be concerns that more controversial collections will not find a safe depository at a local level. The IISH prides itself as being a forerunner in organizing the collection of these important materials.

Stefano Bellucci

Stefano Bellucci, Head of the Africa Desk, explains his decision to set up the office in Addis Ababa:

"The historical and cultural importance of Addis, together with the various international and supranational organizations with headquarters in the city have contributed to making this cosmopolitan city a kind of unofficial capital of Africa. In practical terms, there have also been many improvements in recent times. Ethiopian Airlines has an excellent network of connections to thirty other African countries. The infrastructure for ICT is getting better and compares favorably to other African nations, where this sector is still in its infancy. 

Ethiopia has a fast growing economy, but nevertheless the cost of living is still relatively low. The country enjoys political stability, although it is true that some observers point to certain shortcomings in the institutional system. Crime statistics in Addis Ababa reveal a city that is safe to live in. The city is also quite clean and its climate conditions, with an average annual temperature of 16 C°, make it an ideal place for the storage of documents and archive materials - as well as making it a pleasant living environment. A local representative will manage the African regional office, with an initial remit to collect relevant materials - in liaison with me - and to record them and organize their transfer to the IISH archives as well as overseeing other practicalities. Giuseppe Cipriani, an Italo-Dutch citizen, has been appointed to take up this post."

Italy and Ethiopia have of course historical links, which Stefano Bellucci hastens to explain, do not reflect well on his country. Italy sought to establish a colonial empire covering Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Libya. The Italian presence in Eritrea was the most protracted (from the second half of the XIX century to 1941), in Ethiopia it was the shortest (from 1936 until 1941). The "Italian empire" ended de jure in 1943. Following the end of the Fascist presence in Ethiopia, the two nations were able to develop more stable relations - and indeed Italy has been one of the main providers of international aid and technical cooperation to Ethiopia.
Perhaps as a result of Italy's colonial history in the Horn of Africa there is a strong interest in African studies at universities in Italy, with around 40 academic chairs. Stefano Bellucci lectured on African Studies at the University of Pavia in Lombardy. He has studied in Italy, the USA and France, focusing his research on social studies and the history of Mozambique, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan.

The Africa Desk intends to collect materials covering the entire area of "tropical Africa" (i.e. all of Africa except for the Arab North and South Africa). However, it will initially concentrate on Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Southern Nigeria and possibly Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are countries with a rich social and labor history. They possess valuable sources for collection. Sudan is covered together with the Middle East/Central Asia Desk of the IISH. In Sudan, the archives of the Sudanese Communist Party and that of the Republican Brothers are amongst the acquisitions in view. "The Sudanese communists have expressed their interest in having their archive documents held in the traditional and well-known Marxist section of the IISH collection" Bellucci says.
"Apart from these leftist organizations and trade unions, we will focus also on women's, students' and anti-colonial movements and other movements or organizations where social protest and the struggle for the improvement of living and labor conditions are to be found. We are mainly interested in primary, historical sources. We trust that the local community will benefit from our activities as the historical record of their protests will be protected, preserved and made available to the rest of the world thanks to the services of the IISH. Often local institutions have limited means in terms of being able to offer these facilities in Africa, and there are furthermore insufficient resources in loco for collecting and arranging these materials."

"Our aim is also to enhance capacity building in archive management in Africa itself, and indeed most of the processing part of the collection work will be done in Africa and in the office in Addis Ababa. This is very much in line with both the traditional and the new mission of the Institute to become truly international by focusing on global labor and social history. This is the reason why the IISH is increasingly directing its attention towards the global South".

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Text: Margreet Schrevel

9 February 2011