In the 1950s Arnold Bergstraesser recognised the trend towards closer global integration and, in consequence, the growing relevance of the countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East as important partners in international economic and political cooperation. To facilitate greater involvement with these countries he founded the Arbeitsstelle für kulturwissenschaftliche Forschung (Centre for Cultural Research). Funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs enabled the Centre to supervise the empirically based doctoral theses of numerous students on the one hand and to establish a specialist development studies library on the other.
After the founder's death in 1964, the Centre was renamed in his honour and converted into an institute financed by the State of Baden-Württemberg. Dieter Oberndörfer was appointed director of the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute, a position he exercised jointly with Theodor Hanf from 1972 onwards. In spring 1978 the ABI moved into its own premises built with a grant from the Volkswagen Foundation.
The Institute's core activities included basic research on the politics, society and culture of overseas states, applied research and political consulting, and the training and further education of specialists, managers and leaders in the field of development cooperation. The Institute's focus is not area studies per se, but linking in-depth regional knowledge with current research issues on an interdisciplinary basis. Comparative empirical social research is a hallmark of the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute.
In the 1960s and 1970s one major issue was the clash between assumptions rooted in modernisation theory and the question of the universal applicability of concepts such as state, democracy and human rights. Favoured research topics included the educational and administrative systems of countries of the South. Another focus was ethnic and religious conflicts and the possibilities of regulating them.
With the end of the Cold War, the advance of globalisation and renewed interest in the South, the Institute's focus shifted to new topics of research. Priorities included questions of democratisation, migration, globalisation and the regionalisation of political, economic and social processes and the related conflicts. Good governance as a normative paradigm was a common element in many Institute projects. In 2001 Jürgen Rüland succeeded Dieter Oberndörfer as director of the ABI. After the retirement of Theodor Hanf and Jürgen Rüland in 2007, Heribert Weiland, who had served as the Institute's executive manager for many years, was appointed director. He was succeeded by Reinhart Kößler.
Since its founding, the institute has worked closely with the University of Freiburg, in particular the Department of Political Science. This relationship was formalised in a cooperation agreement in 2008 that was further deepened in 2014 through an arrangement in which the head of the Institute would henceforth hold the chair of development theory and policy at the University of Freiburg. In 2015 a joint appointment committee of the Institute and the university chose Andreas Mehler as Director of the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute.