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DfID adieu – I shall not lament your passing

DfID adieu – I shall not lament your passing
Written by Gwythian Prins

The news that the Department for International Development is to be folded back into and under the FCO – henceforth FCDO – is to be welcomed at many levels.

The news that the Department for International Development (DfID) is to be folded back into and under the FCO – henceforth FCDO – is to be welcomed at many levels.It is the first significant culling of one of the sacred cows created during the Blair era. There is a whole herd of quangos and unnecessary pieces of Whitehall and especially of the devolution experiment waiting to be slain and immolated on metaphorical bonfires of the vanities at a scale of those onto which our national herds were once thrown during the 2001 Foot & Mouth epidemic.

It is also timely, because we need to regroup and marshal all our national resources to push back aggressive Chinese Communist ‘belt and road’ imperialism, most especially in DfID’s former prime stomping ground of sub-saharan Africa, from which a straitened FCO more or less withdrew. Great Britain must once more be represented there by proper diplomats – not re-badged former Difidys, please note! That must not be allowed, or else there will be danger of a reverse takeover.

Two immediate dangers to be averted

There is a worrying precedent. It has happened before, and recently.  The abolition of DECC (The Dept of Energy & Climate Change), another ideologically charged department, created on that occasion by Brown not Blair and as a vehicle for Ed Miliband, was widely welcomed. But its fusion into BIS, now BEIS (The Dept of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy), saw many ‘climate-change’ campaigning civil servants simply rebadged and indeed re-empowered in their efforts to “green” and thereby to damage the national electricity grid, which has been rendered increasingly fragile and costly since 2002. Something similar could easily happen to the FCDO. The DfID budget is four times larger than that of the FCO. There are hundreds of Difidys to deal with.

To my certain knowledge and experience there was and is huge confirmation bias and virtue-signalling among DfID officials who are true believers in the end of the nation-state, who feel themselves custodians of a pure mission above politics and beyond the UK national interest, which many despise. They are classic examples of David Goodhart’s ‘people from no-where.’ To all this baggage will now surely be added resentment at their abolition.  They are not normal civil servants. What will they do? What will HR see as the line of least resistance – if not firmly resisted now?

As Baviaan, the dog-headed, barking baboon – who was quite the wisest animal in all of South Africa – told the Leopard,  “The game has gone into other spots; and my advice to you, Leopard, is to go into other spots as soon as you can.” Which, oh best beloved, you will recall is what he did, with the help of the Ethiopian’s finger-prints. But he remained a leopard. And DfID officials transferred into the FCDO – from the High Veldt into the forest – will likewise remain DfIDys, with new spots to be sure. Much wiser and safer then to let them go and seek reemployment in their natural habitat of campaigning NGOs. There needs to be a large redundancy programme. It would be a dangerous mistake, and unkind too, to allow them to pretend to change their spots which I do not believe they can, in all honesty, do.

Likewise, another danger looms that must be averted. The fervent EUphilia of the FCO that was on display before, during and after the EU referendum, must not be allowed to capture and repurpose the incoming ex-DfID new resources in further efforts to keep the UK tied to or subordinate to the EU in defiance of the will of the people and of the Government. Sir Simon McDonald has just announced his imminent retirement as PUS of the FCO. A brand new Permanent Under Secretary for a brand new department is just what is required.

The ineradicable conceptual and structural flaws of DfID

All taxpayer-funded ‘aid’ is political and it is disingenuous to have ever pretended otherwise.  The structural mistake baked into the concept of DfID is right there in the name. In the UK, we have departments ‘of’ things, not departments ‘for’ things. We have campaigning groups ‘for’ things. DfID introduced that fateful elision into Whitehall culture which the Blair years proliferated by its policy of high-level horizontal transfers into the Civil Service from campaigning NGOs like Oxfam. Thirteen years ago I wrote the following:

‘If DfID continues as a department of state, it will have to work out the implication of the shift from “for” to “of” as well as what “development” and “international” mean now and should mean. The White Paper [DfID. Eliminating World Poverty: Making Governance Work for the Poor. London: HMSO, 2006] moves forwards, looking backwards… Specifically, the clutch in the title (“for”) is slipping badly. There is diminishing actual or potential transmission from a liberally funded and high revving engine (western taxpayers’ money going into aid budgets, especially for Africa) to poor people. The fifty year record of inter-governmental and structural development aid is now in, and it is disappointing. There is no convincing evidence that it has helped growth in income at all or the poor in particular. There are negative effects from structural adjustment and [matters are] not as represented at p.13 of the White Paper. Why? Three reasons: because aid dependency saps enterprise and distorts recipient government priorities; because the purposes of most post-colonial states are broadly not based on execution of a social contract, but are to form an arena for competition to control spoils (scan the Corruption Index); because compared to their colonial civil service predecessors, today’s formal external actors, like the DfID, lack standing, time or skills; and they needs must deal with formal, internal actors. They can only with difficulty touch the informal political economy, where the real action is.’

I shall return below to the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, where I lectured on those matters in 2007, because Anne-Marie Trevelyan and the new FCDO ministers will still need to grapple with these same DfID ‘legacy’ issues in their new setting.

Why abolition is so essential: DfID’s cultural arrogance & historical obsolescence

The abolition of DfID is a moment of personal satisfaction for me. I have been battling what DfID stood for all my career; and so the good news took me back to two particular memories: one in 1974 and a second, already indicated, in Eastbourne in November 2007.

One night in 1974, as a young Cambridge postgraduate researcher, I was sitting beside a fire under a star-lit African sky in a Lozi village in Senanga district, east of the Zambezi, deep in the bush near nzila ya lihule, the Prostitutes’ Way, a long-distance footpath once used by migrant labourers going down to work on the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. My research on late nineteenth century history in former Barotseland (Bulozi), a Kingdom now uncomfortably the Western Province of Zambia, that was granted similar rights by the British to those given to the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana), took me far and wide, learning to read the landscape and gathering oral testimony from elderly men and women who still recalled the epic times of their childhoods that were still then, just, at the threshold of human memory. After a couple of intense years, my siLozi was sufficient that I sometimes travelled alone; and on that evening as we chatted around the fire, as a hot young idealist, I warmed to my topic.

Aid agencies were pressing the Zambian Dept of Agriculture to get – actually to compel – villagers like my hosts to plant higher yielding hybrid maize (SR-52) instead of their lower yielding but indigenously adapted varieties. The problem with SR-52 was that it required both pesticides and fertilisers to thrive to full potential; and that locked villagers into new cash requirements and fragile supply chains. If the chain broke for any reason, the crop failure would be worse than a reliable lower yield from low-input indigenised maize. Therefore I saw SR-52 as a threat to their food security and so, yes, I tried to sabotage the aid programme. That was my plea that star-lit night: don’t co-operate. Stick with what you are doing.

An old man wearing faded khaki battle fatigues listened and then turned to me. He said something that I have never forgotten. “Young mukuwa (white man),” he said. “Why are you telling us all this? I am old enough to be your grandfather and we have known you people of old. We know that you are very clever making things” – he gestured towards my Landrover visible at the edge of the firelight, outside the village – “but we also know that there is part of the whiteman’s mind that is permanently mad. When I was with Monty in the desert,” he continued – and he had Eighth Army patches still: he had been a carrier with the Rhodesian forces –  “I saw the effect of the weapons that you make; and on the radio we hear of bombs far bigger still. You say that you will never use them but we know you better. So therefore, kind as it is of you, if you are going to blow us all up, why concern yourself with our maize?”

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?

Language skills and presence. I had seen many acerbic memoranda in the archives from Mr Clay’s pen asking why this or that officer was sitting in his office and not out ‘on tour’ for sufficient days per month.  Presence was the prerequisite for detailed awareness about your District. The worst offence in the provincial administration was for local famine to occur without the DC’s knowledge. There were established famine relief measures (public work for food) that could be employed in need. In the maLozi case, in addition the Royal Court could order similar measures that pre-dated the colonial era.

That post-war record of ‘Millennium Development Goal’ type achievement is a matter of fact. It has been long obscured; and today, under the raging of wilfully ignorant Black Lives Matter/Rhodes Must Fall activists bullying craven University administrations – with honourable exceptions like Louise Richardson in Oxford – it is ‘cancelled’, just as the truth of the many thousands’ massed Ndebele royal salute (‘Bayete!’) to Cecil John Rhodes at his burial at World’s View in the Matopos Hills in 1902, close to the bones of Mzilikazi the founder of the Matabele nation, and of the Ndebele guard of honour that was mounted for decades thereafter, is ‘cancelled’. The reasons for that respect are entirely forgotten, if they were ever known by the RMF crew, eg Rhodes’ repurchase of land from settlers to give to the Ndebele. So what’s that about then, one might ask? Legitimated power is the answer. The colonial experience was a subtle, joint creation of many actors, not just the binary boot on the neck. Such gross caricature insults the memories of all involved, black, brown or white. It is to ‘cancel’ the very pith of a century of shared history in Africa.

After I had offered this advice to a hushed DfID audience in the Grand Hotel, I experienced an early sign of what has now come upon us all. For I had uttered rank heresy. Not only had I spoken the ‘c’ word, but with some informed praise and not ritual condemnation. The emotional temperature dropped through the floor. In questions, I well remember a lady DfID official, tight-lipped, who spat out that language qualifications were utterly irrelevant because its ‘governance advisers’ were a precious and scarce resource who might have to be moved across the globe at a moment’s notice; and so learning local languages would simply waste resources and sow confusion.

I saw the lie of the land. Am I therefore to assume, I retorted, that they are possessed of some universally applicable higher knowledge? If so, what is it, and how pretentious is that? I got no reply. An academic adviser (I think from the University of Sussex) leapt to the platform to assert between gritted teeth that while this Professor might think that this was how things had been in Africa, it certainly was not so in India and probably not in Africa either. For the rest of my time with them, I was comprehensively sent to Coventry. My former pupils dared not come near me or speak to me or even to look at me. I was never invited back, not to Eastbourne, nor yet to Jaipur, more’s the pity. But I kept faith with Monty’s muLozi soldier and also with Gervas Clay who after retirement from the Northern Rhodesia provincial administration became Director of the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum (to which I myself was later attached) and whose Lozi name was mutusi – the helper – for his role in trying to defend the 1900 Barotseland Agreement when both the British and the new Zambian authorities welched on it at Independence in 1964.

Four subordinate points to transform performance and delivery

That was my first point of advice to DfID that afternoon. I had four others. Together they still stand as a programme for the humane and realistic as opposed to ideological deployment of British taxpayers’ money. Therefore I offer them to Mr Raab and Ms Trevelyan to complete my five point programme for the reorientation and improvement of British development aid effort in 2021.

In siLuyana, the Court language of Bulozi, there is a wise proverb: liywa limweya ka liolo ndopu: an elephant does not go rotten in a single day – or even thirteen years. May I suggest that it applies here?

How to find out what to support with British money
  • ‘Other than for emergency relief, adopt the Global Fund (for the elimination of TB, AIDS & Malaria) model of dispensing funding ie, consciously abandon all goal or target setting, all planning, all administrative models, especially all direct subsidy of other government’s budgets: there are African spectres looming over DfID today from that practice in the past, as all know. Instead, invest effort in critical review and invite application from all sources whether governmental or not.’
  • ‘Then fund and re-fund only success. Fund no new initiatives that are thought up in London except the following two – both of which have strong Global Southern roots.’
Education above all
  • ‘Divert the lion’s share of “good governance” funding to scholarships to pay fees at all levels from primary to university levels of education. Recognise the preferences of people and the realities on the ground and fund private schools – not state schools with all their encumbrances and controls – to administer such competitions. There is no better investment – no better proven investment – than this. As our first Waterford/Kamhlaba student to win a full Harvard scholarship (a girl from a refugee family, to read Chemistry) put it to a room full of wealthy American potential donors in a British Ambassador’s residence, “I am sick of poverty; I was born into it; and I want to help my continent to abolish it. I owe everything to the scholarships that supported me. But you can only raise Africa up one young African at a time.” Put significant International Development money into greatly amplified competitive Rhodes-Mandela/Chevening-type scholarships for the very best local students to attend elite British institutions. Do not leave it all to Anil Seal’s Cambridge Commonwealth and Cambridge International Trusts. Do this soon, before the Chinese, Americans and Indians steal all our trousers.’ [Sadly we are pretty trouserless nowadays. Waterford/Kamhlaba in Eswatini (Swaziland), where I taught as a volunteer before Cambridge, is a multi-racial school consciously established in 1963 on the principles of a British public school to train the next generation of African leaders, which it has done with conspicuous success].
Let the free market rock
  • Recognise where the driving forces of enterprise are and broadcast them with élan. Broadcast them literally. Fund the BBC to develop local variants of “The Dragon’s Den” with local entrepreneurs and with broadcasters of all types – local public service and satellite, including via BBC World. This can become as potent a source of soft power, world-wide, as British football and cricket. It is fortunate that in televisual terms, successful capitalism is as naturally full of drama and spectacle as state socialism is of tedium.

DfID infamously sprayed millions over an Ethiopian girl pop group and TV shows, as in Pakistan. So it is no stranger to what the military call InfoOps and MediaOps.  The FCDO just needs to get the DfIDys away from the controls and reassert a grip on the messaging from the very start.

Adieu. I shall not lament your passing

So DfID adieu. I shall not lament your passing although others who over-used that ‘great cashpoint in the sky’ may do so. You should never have been created in the first place. You were the wrong answer, underpinned with the wrong basic analysis and created with the wrong motives. The deepest irony, which was fully in my mind as I addressed those ranks of eager young ‘governance advisers’ in 2007, thinking all the while of my maLozi friends and of Gervas Clay and his officers, is that you were far more patronising in the worst colonial fashion than the era which set the standard for good governance in post-war Africa from which we can still learn, if we have the humility to do so. It was an era which left a legacy of goodwill – yes, goodwill – that expresses itself in the grass-roots vitality of the Commonwealth today.  That goodwill provides a stock of political capital that global Britain sorely needs to employ and deploy as it rediscovers its freedoms and exercises its natural reflexes and powers once more, today and into the future.

Gwythian Prins’s book on late nineteenth century Bulozi (The Hidden Hippopotamus. Reappraisal in African History: The early colonial experience in western Zambia, Cambridge University Press, 1980) won the Herskovits Prize for African History that year.

About the author

Gwythian Prins