Written by Gwythian Prins


This article was first published in Briefings for Britain and we republish with their kind permission. 



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[Continued from Part I here

Chastened, I grew up quite a bit that night. It was a lesson about the ease with which, in youthful zeal, one can underestimate and patronise people. It was an error that by and large, I discovered, officers in the Colonial Service tended not to make. That evening changed not least how I researched both my own late nineteenth century topic but also the later colonial years in Barotseland. It also changed my own reflex soixanhuitard politics from school in Paris in ’68. I began to read and believe Burke and Hayek more than Althusser and Marx.

Which takes us back to the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne in 2007. The meeting I attended was originally supposed to have taken place in Jaipur (I think they said); but it was decided that the ‘look’ of shipping all the DfID ‘Governance Advisers’, dozens and dozens of them, plus me and other contracted experts to India, was deemed to be not good. I had just been at an AIDS epidemiology meeting in Cairo, so arrived in Eastbourne from Heathrow late at night. “What paper do you want in the morning, sir?” the receptionist asked when I checked in, adding before I could answer, “and don’t ask for The Guardian. All this lot have asked for it and we can’t get any more.” I didn’t.

There used to be an annual get-together of DfID ‘governance advisers’ – maybe there still is – and when we met at breakfast the next morning it was a jolly time. A few young, familiar faces of former Cambridge pupils came up to greet me, all about the age that I was when I lived in Bulozi. Their job was to advise people like Robert Mugabe on principles of ‘good governance’. My topic that day was to advise on ways to obtain best value for money in that task in light of the 2006 DfID White Paper and I was to give two talks: one about the nature of the working context for DfID ‘governance advisers’, from which the quote above is taken, and the second on practical measures. I had a five point plan.

When my wife and I lived deep in the bush, in Bulozi, in the 1970s, it was the time of the first wave of Chinese colonisation. Zambia and Tanzania got the sloppily engineered TAZARA railway whose railbed had to be remade and whose principal purpose was to get Zambian copper to Dar-es-Salaam and onto ships to China; and we, in Bulozi, got a tarred road from Lusaka. Equally useless. Across the Kafue Bridge and on the Barotse sands, it washed out after the first rains. So it was worse than the old gravel road, because in places you had to negotiate not only the bush but now also great dislocated slabs of undermined tarmac. In the end, the anti-apartheid boycott notwithstanding, a South African contractor who knew how to build roads in Africa had to be brought in to put it right. But the Chinese debt remained. Zambia was flooded with Chinese produce. So, along with our maLozi neighbours, we hesitantly ate “Great Wall” pork (or maybe bat?) luncheon meat and a “fruit jam” which seemed distinctly chemical. I bought a brute of a “Flying Wheel” bicycle to economise on using the Landrover in the Zambezi flood-plain during the dry season. And the way the Chinese behaved! Shut away in their work camps, and making little secret of their contempt for Africans in the view of our Zambian friends and neighbours. Therefore, in the Grand Hotel, I spoke as follows:

‘Opportunities for us (the West in general, Her Majesty’s Government in particular) to influence public ethics or procedures (“governance”) in other principally post-colonial places in return for structural money or manpower are diminishing hourly because the rising forces in the scramble for raw materials, especially China, make truculent capital of their non-conditionality and their willingness to deal with any old tyrant. China’s recent blast-off was the principal geo-strategic consequence of 9/11 and 11/12 – joining the WTO. However, as events in Zambia are suggesting, the contemptuous racism of Chinese towards Africans and the scale of the Chinese appetite, may cause a counter-reaction.’

I was referring to anger on the Copperbelt at Chinese exclusion of Zambians from jobs, and even violence, shooting Zambian protesters, and also to the views of the Patriotic Front leader, Michael Sata, who on the fourth attempt in 2011 was to win the Presidency on the first explicitly anti-CCP platform to prevail in a sub-saharan African democracy. What I said then I repeat as advice for Anne-Marie Trevelyan today, reinforced in urgency.

I ended that first talk with my view of that White Paper which, in retrospect, marked the high water mark in the life of the DfID.

‘The White Paper’s assumptions about agency and effect are predicated upon mid 20th century actors whose powers are all waning fast now: the UN, the ever closer union European project, the Bretton Woods institutions. The MDGs were always a distraction and after the UN’s September 05 train wreck, now even more so.’

The ‘train wreck’ was the failure of the Annan Plan for Security Council reform, which I worked on and supported when at Columbia University. The MDGs were the “Millennium Development Goals” conceived and piloted by Jeffrey Sachs, also of Columbia.

Breaking the DfID mould: A five point plan that reshapes British development aid to work for Global Britain

I’d say that over lunch the reception to my first talk was inquisitive among the young ‘governance advisers’ and decidedly cool among the senior DfID staffers and academic advisers. The contractors hired to run the day, who had hired me, were looking uncomfortable. But the memorable part of that day came next; and since I think my advice on best practice and obtaining best value for money for British development aid has stood the passage of time and is what I would advise Mr Raab and Ms Trevelyan still, here it is:

Point One: copy best practice from the past

‘Study first what has worked in the past. As Moeletsi Mbeki [Brother of President Thabo Mbeki] remarked at SAIIA [The South African Institute of International Affairs, of which he was Director] in 2004, the period during which sub-Saharan Africa (DfID’s prime focus, de facto) experienced its longest period of “good governance,” judged on concrete results, was under colonial rule. This was the period of the best simultaneous improvement in MDG priorities: improving diet, in health, in peri-natal survival, in overall life expectancy, in associated gross population growth, in female literacy, of the domestic rule of law and (by definition) the absence of civil war. Yes there was Mau Mau, but that was not civil war. Mission schools gave limited quantity but good education. There were no large-scale famines in British Africa during these decades.

‘Within this period, the best resourced years, both in terms of money and of personnel, followed the Second World War. Therefore examine the assumptions and the execution of the ambitions for “good governance” of the Colonial Development & Welfare Act (July/Sept 1940). Examine the career structures and the institutional incentives and thresholds for career development in the colonial civil service of the early 1950s. Examine its use of non-state actors (missions etc). We are now, for the first moment, at a human generation distance from the late colonial era; so for the first time we can see with clear-sighted and calm eyes how it achieved what it did on staffing levels that were astonishingly lean by contemporary standards.’

The CD&W Act was passed as a promise to the post-war empire at the darkest time in the darkest hour as Britain stood alone. It came good as a parallel to the introduction of the ‘welfare state’ in the form of ‘welfare colonialism’ funding for Africa during the Attlee government along with increased establishment of colonial officers, many recruited from among de-mobbed servicemen who had voted Labour into power. Many of them subsequently deposited their papers with the Colonial Records Project at Rhodes House in Oxford, where I researched them. Incomprehensible as it may be to today’s vandalising protesters and their genuflecting supporters, CD&W welfare colonialism was a keenly left-wing project in many eyes, propelled by a Labour government.

In the late 1970s, I interviewed the late Gervas Clay, Barotseland’s Resident Commissioner before Independence, in his old age in Somerset (although he eventually lived to be 102), and also his wife, the redoubtable Hon Betty, daughter of Lord and Lady Baden-Powell, who carried on their work with Scouting and Guiding. I already knew of his fearsome reputation as a disciplinarian from both maLozi and from former provincial administration officers, his subordinates. We approached Wiveliscombe in some trepidation. They were utterly charming. Indeed he explained what a handful some of these tearaway new post-war recruits could be – and Mrs Clay recollected some notable scandals of which I had caught whiffs. Mr Clay told me what a difference it made to him and to the role and tone of his Service, to have such an enlargement of formal mission beyond the narrower remit of resident magistrate and Lugardian political adviser which defined the Service he had joined in 1930. There were now Education, Veterinary, Forestry, Medical and other specialists galore.

But the career structure and its institutional steps remained unchanged. Promotion and hence pay and responsibility in the provincial administration were linked to language skills. A Cadet had to pass basic fluency to become a District Officer. A DO had to have advanced skills to progress to District Commissioner. It seems common sense that you cannot interact in a meaningful way with people if you cannot speak to them and they to you. In the world of historians, how do you write a biography of Bismarck if you can ‘t read German?

[Continued with the final Part III tomorrow] 

Photo by AslanMedia

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