Attitudes to poverty in Africa: 1991 to 2009 (updated)

With the agreement of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, I have put on my website the text of a confidential despatch that I sent to the then Conservative Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary in early 1991, at the end of the last of my African and Africa-related postings, going back to 1957. The full text of the despatch is now at  The senior official in the FCO then responsible for our relations with Africa had invited me to write some valedictory reflections on that continent before I finally moved on elsewhere (to Australia and then into retirement).

It’s interesting to compare attitudes to Africa and development aid as reflected in and prompting my despatch in 1991, with attitudes now, in 2009.  In 1991 a Conservative government was actively engaged in one of its rounds of severe cuts in government expenditure.   Africa had largely ceased to command the attention of senior ministers following the completion of British decolonisation, the end of our responsibilities in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1980 and the recently initiated dismantling of apartheid (in which we had been internationally seen as complicit).  So aid to Africa, and the maintenance of embassies or high commissions in a wide range of African countries, seemed obvious targets for spending cuts.  In the mid 1980s, famine in Ethiopia, forced into public awareness and concern by Michael Buerk, Bob Geldof, and others, had created an awareness of poverty and suffering in Africa and a constituency for humanitarian aid to relieve it.  But there was at that time little public pressure for longer-term development aid, and as the Ethiopian famine subsided, so Africa again slipped down the media’s agenda.

For these and other reasons, in 1991 Britain’s development aid record was lamentable — apart from Austria’s, the lowest in the whole European Economic Community; and there was little or no pressure for increasing it substantially, if at all. Africa was anyway being radically down-graded in the British government’s system of priorities.  It was alarm and concern over this dismal situation that prompted my despatch.

The despatch, perhaps predictably, was frigidly received in Whitehall.  It was given a far more strictly limited domestic and global distribution than was then customary for this kind of document.  The sentiments it expressed seemed controversial, even provocative, in the climate of the time;  there was some suggestion (as I learned later on the grapevine) that when I wrote it I must have forgotten that there was no longer a Labour government in office at home.

Fast-forward to 2009.  Africa’s poverty and pressing development needs have been deep personal concerns of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both of whom have translated their commitments into positive action.  Problems aired in my despatch such as the mountain of African debt to rich western countries, and the shortcomings of IMF structural adjustment programmes, have been tackled and largely resolved.  Others, such as restrictions on African exports imposed by the CAP and other aspects of EU and global trade policy, while not resolved, are widely acknowledged and there is pressure to address them. Britain now has widely respected aid and development policies and an enviable record of growing and increasingly effective development aid, especially in Africa.  Almost nothing in that 1991 despatch would now be regarded as controversial.

However, there are two alarming features of the current scene which echo the concerns in the despatch.  First, there is currently a campaign of active scepticism about the efficacy of all western aid to Africa.  Dead Aid, a widely read and much praised book by a young African woman economist, Dembisa Moyo, not only asserts that aid to Africa does more harm than good: Ms Moyo actually calls for a decision to terminate all such aid in five years’ time.  The book and Ms Moyo’s campaign have incurred damaging criticisms from informed development economists who have demonstrated on the basis of numerous studies, ignored in Dead Aid, that development aid has made a substantial contribution to economic growth and social welfare in Africa and that aid is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for accelerated development.  Yet Ms Moyo’s campaign has achieved considerable traction: it obviously resonates with those who would indolently write off Africa (and almost a billion people who live there) as a basket case, and who assert that aid to Africa simply sends good money after bad — preferring to dismiss an abundance of research studies that demonstrate the contrary.  The case for aid as one part of a sustained campaign against poverty in Africa, the case which I tried to make in 1991, now, sadly, needs to be made once more.

Secondly, the global recession and the huge levels of government debt being incurred in bailing out collapsed banks and in Keynesian fiscal stimuli of deflating economies will soon force western governments, including Britain’s, to reduce their expenditures and increase taxes in order to reduce unsustainable debt and to preserve creditworthiness.  Debt reduction should begin only after it has become clear that we are beginning to emerge from recession:  but the UK Conservative opposition, almost universally expected to win a general election within the next 12 months, strongly advocates cutting government spending immediately.  Mounting (even though ill-informed) scepticism about the usefulness of development aid to Africa, combined with an incoming Conservative government committed to immediate swingeing cuts in government spending, looks set fair to reproduce in 2010 some of the conditions and attitudes denounced in my 1991 despatch.  Fortunately the current Tory shadow international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has publicly declared that a Conservative government will spare development aid from cuts, and committed himself to continued bipartisan approval for the good work of the UK Department for International Development.  Let’s hope that my despatch won’t need to be set as compulsory reading for Mr Cameron or Mr Osborne if and when they move across to the government benches in the house of commons some time next year.


8 Responses

  1. Brian,

    That despatch reads (for the most part!) as an eloquent and far-sighted piece of work.

    What it lacks as do the blog post above and the blog posting by your son lack is any sort of serious look at how aid might be done better. Owen B makes what seems like a good point:

    Even if Moyo had succeeded in making the case that aid can be harmful, her story would require her to make two further arguments. First, she would have to show that the harm outweighs the good. Second, she would have to show that donors could not improve the way they give aid and so minimize the harm while retaining the good.

    But after so many years of dismal underperforming in Africa, the ‘aid community’ likewise have to explain why their approach in all its endless and often self-serving reinventions could not be replaced by something very different and much better, with a much greater emphasis on enterprise and business development.

    The fact is that the whole ethos of assistance as practised for decades across Africa is socialistic and patronising. Moyo is surely on to something big when she talks about the negative psychological impact of this assistance, in that it discourages initiative and responsibility among African rulers and populations alike. I am in touch with one DFID project person in Africa who is in despair at the waste and stupidity of what he is doing, yet dare not talk about it publicly. Combine all that with the folly of the CAP and you have an appalling policy mix.
    Where Africa is concerned I tend to put a lot of faith in the wisdom of Steve Biko, whose Black Consciousness Movement stressed intelligence and creative self-reliance. That is the sort of tradition Moyo seems to be coming from. Linked to the networking and democratic power of new technology it at last is starting to let Africans’ own initiative flourish spontaneously, without governments and experts telling them what to do.

    And if she is in important respects wrong, so what? Maybe the best way for Africa to learn to run its own affairs well is to do so and make painful mistakes. Is not it patronising and harmful in the long run to try to get in the way of that? I recall the wailing at Harvard after the Russian banking crisis of 1998 – Russian market reform has failed! Bring back price controls! No. Just as was to be expected, a big dent in the car incurred while learning to drive a powerful modern economy.

    In any case, is there not now a serious risk that the Western assistance industry will chunter on but become increasingly irrelevant as African rulers cut huge deals with China/India, with scant regard for Western standards? The ‘Asian’ model of pell-mell development now, democracy/transparency maybe later must be more credible to many Africans at all levels after nearly fifty years of different clever ‘Western’ medicines not really working?

    Big subject. But your 1991 despatch did hit some important targets with unusual prescience.

    Imagine. Back then people wrote such intelligent pieces. And even read them. Crazy, huh?


    Brian writes: Charles, thanks for this, and for your kind words about the despatch. I don’t apologise for having omitted from the despatch, and from my blog post, any “serious look at how aid might be done better”: that would have been a subject for a very different despatch and a very different post. Owen B (unlike me) is an experienced development economist who has devoted a large part of his working life so far to that very subject, in the Treasury, in No. 10 Downing Street, as a senior DfID official and now in Ethiopia. He has written (and, perhaps more importantly, thought) extensively about “how aid might be done better” — and about the much wider issue of promoting development — in numerous papers, articles, blog posts, and books, and he hosts a series of podcasts about development (nb not just aid) in which he interviews other, often eminent, development economists from all over the world about different aspects of development (I understand that Ms Moyo has so far not responded to his invitations to be interviewed, by the way). I especially commend the podcasts to you: ideal to download via iTunes to your iPod for listening to on the treadmill in the gym.

    So I’m content to leave what you rightly call that ‘big subject’ to him. But I certainly don’t share your apparent sympathy for Moyo’s thesis that UK development aid to Africa as practised now is “socialistic and patronising” or that it “discourages initiative and responsibility among African rulers and populations”, whatever may have happened at some periods in the past. It’s important not to fall into the Moyo trap of writing as if “enterprise and business development” is an alternative to development aid: much of Africa desperately needs both, and denigrating one at the expense of the other does millions of very poor people in Africa no favours.

  2. Brian,

    Have you read Eat the Rich by P J O’Rourke? He basically argues that where governments (Left or Right) uphold the right of private citizens to flourish and get wealthy, that’s what tends to happen. If not, not. Sounds about right to me. 
    Maybe DFID is having a good run now. I merely recall their scandalously poor performance in the Balkans during many long years where their processes and ‘priority sectors’ drove out common sense and wasted public money – and, worse, quite failed to advance reform sensibly. 

    The core question about your despatch? Not its eloquence and insight. But its operational effectiveness.

    Your alarm at the dismal record of British aid prompted the despatch, sent to a Conservative government looking for ‘cuts’. The sense and tone of the despatch – its message – was unambiguous: “You people are getting it wrong: your approach is immoral, short-sighted and unwise”. The result? Reduced distribution for it, a frigid reception. Were you surprised or flattered by that?
    Part of the strong case for the Obama Cairo speech is that it represents a clear change in tone after all that hectoring “You Arabs need freedom” talk from Bush. You rightly say in the note above that to look at how aid might have been done better would have meant you sending “a very different despatch”. But maybe that very different despatch cast less as a lecture (quite a lot of finger-wagging phrases and hints!) and more as an exercise in trying to coax Ministers to think differently about these issues via some creative new ideas likely to appeal to them as Conservatives would have had more impact – and helped those millions of very poor people?

    Diplomacy. It always starts (and often ends) with your own colleagues.

    Brian writes: Charles, I don’t need to add anything to Owen’s reply to you about the efficacy of aid. As to whether the tone of my 1991 despatch was well calculated to persuade Tory ministers in London at the time to change their minds, you might bear in mind that I (and many others) had been arguing in reasoned, moderate, non-judgmental terms for a transfer of more resources (not just aid) to Africa for a dozen years or so before I wrote my “farewell to Africa” paper, without achieving anything tangible. There comes a time when ministers have the right to be told unwelcome truths, and offered unwelcome advice, in terms that just might cause them to reconsider their priorities. Pussy-footing doesn’t necessarily achieve better results than very occasional, carefully timed, calculated bluntness. ( I have heard very indirectly that despite the limitations hastily placed on the distribution of my despatch it did in fact trigger a policy review which caused some re-thinking about African priorities, although I can’t vouch for the truth of this and I don’t know whether anything positive came of it. Probably not. But that’s not an argument against trying for one last time when the opportunity arises.)

    As for Mr P J O’Rourke’s philosophy, I can only say that this seems a peculiar time to be arguing for unregulated laissez-faire capitalism, and encouragement for the uncontrolled pursuit of private wealth, considering the appalling mess that precisely that philosophy has landed us in — with millions of wholly innocent victims world-wide suffering for the greed and antisocial behaviour of a goodly number of bankers and financiers.

  3. Oliver Miles says:

    Although my career as a diplomat did not involve me very much with aid policy, and scarcely at all with Africa south of the Sahara, I have a couple of comments.
    First, contrary to what you and others who have commented suggest, the thesis that aid to Africa does more harm than good is not a new one. I remember a pundit, ennobled I think by Margaret Thatcher but whose name mercifully escapes me, who gave a public lecture in Luxembourg when I was ambassador there in the mid-80s making just this point. I was so incensed that I rather unfairly used the ambassadorial bully pulpit to squash him: I said that I had never heard before that the man who passed by on the other side was actually wiser than the good Samaritan, an argument which went down well in Luxembourg though it might not impress you so much, Brian.
    Second, paragraph 11 of your dispatch in which you refer to the possibility of a wave of economic refugees from Africa made an important point (I was going to say farsighted – but you wrote 20 years after the expulsion of Ugandan Asians?) I have been made very much aware of this problem because of my involvement withLibya.
    It is now probably top of the agenda of Italian/Libyan relations, and very high on the list of EU/Libyan relations. It is unusual among Libyan problems in that it is not actually caused by the Libyans. Their geographical position has made them a transit country for huge numbers of desperate Africans heading for Europe, a problem both for the Libyans and for Europe which neither has the capacity to solve or even handle. In discussions with Libyans and international officials concerned with migration problems there is something like a consensus that the only way to end this problem would be to create conditions south of the Sahara such that people would be willing to stay at home – at least preferable to the appalling cost, sufferings and risks that crossing the Sahara, Libya and the Mediterranean involve. So far as I can see that won’t happen, and I assume that global communications and improved transport mean that the problem will be even bigger five or ten years hence than it is now.

    Brian writes: Actually I think your Good Samaritan argument was a very powerful one, Oliver. Non-believers don’t have to ignore wisdom expressed in parables.

    I agree, of course, with what you say about the plight of refugees trying to escape into Libya and thence into Europe. Not only will improvements in global transport and communications further aggravate the problem, as you rightly say: but also climate change (drought, desertification, floods, salination) will increase pressures to escape from tropical Africa.

  4. Owen Barder says:


    The evidence seems to show that aid works, but could work better. It works in two senses – both because for the most part it pays for the goods or services it has been allocated to buy (eg food, medical care, schooling etc), and because there is a correlation between receiving more aid and faster economic growth.

    Many of can think of examples of aid programmes that have not worked, or which could have been done better, but that is a far cry from saying that no aid works, or that in general aid does not work. I only need to walk out of my front door here in Ethiopia to show you many examples of aid working, including the extraordinary progress that the Ethiopian government has made in improving health and education, supported by aid from the UK and other donors.

    I’m with you in believing that aid should be given in ways that allow countries and people to make their own decisions, “run their own affairs” as you say, and to be accountable for what they do, including for mistakes they make. Unfortunately, many people – including many of your former colleagues in the FCO – believe that aid should only be given if it is surrounded by conditions and rules which guarantee that it will be used in the way that the donor intends. That makes it difficult to promote the self reliance you say you support.

    Dambisa Moyo does not deserve to be discussed in the same sentence as Steve Biko.

    Oliver: the economist admired by Margaret Thatcher was P. T. Bauer, later Lord Bauer. Dambisa Moyo pays tribute to him.

    It is often attractive to take the side of the counter-intuitive idea (aid does more harm than good) or the cynical position (aid just sustains corrupt government). Sometimes those positions have the merit of being true. But in this case, the evidence to the contrary is pretty compelling.


  5. Lorna says:

    Many thanks for another thought-provoking item.

  6. Derek Partridge says:

    I left Sierra Leone on retirement in May 1991 having served five years as British High Commissioner. I did not submit a valedictory despatch. My Annual Review for 1990, in which I had made the case for more assistance to Sierra Leone now that it was abandoning the one-party state constitution and moving to multi-party democracy, had not been submitted to Ministers. I was told that they were pre-occupied with Kuwait and Sierra Leone had “little priority”. What would be the point, therefore, in repeating those arguments in a valedictory despatch? I did in my final call on Lynda Chalker complain at the paucity of aid to Sierra Leone while I knew that we had been content to let Kenya misapply £200 million. I was told that steps were being taken in respect of Kenya. When I paid my valedictory call on Dougla Hurd he said that he understood that I thought we should be giving more help to Sierra Leone. He would expect a good High Commissioner to think that. Would I tell him why? I did so. It clearly made no impact. I was speaking to a closed mind. My final report on leaving the Service, I was officially told, was that I had done a good job but because I had spent so long in Sierra Leone I had exaggerated the British interest there.

    From my briefing in 1986 from the Head of West African Department, on taking up the post, I remember two main points. One was that I should urge President Momoh to adopt a structural adjustment programme. Ghana had done so in 1980 and the evidence of its success was in the number of contracts being placed with British firms! The other was that because of the support we had received from Sierra Leone during the Falklands War in allowing British ships to be refuelled and revictualled in Freetown harbour, we were willing to give Sierra Leone more aid (this turned out not to be true). Shortly after I had presented my credentials I was instructed to call on President Momoh and advise him, in accordance with the requirements of the IMF, to free the currency and abolish the subsidy on rice. The President protested that to do so would cause riots in the streets. I felt like saying “I realise so, Your Excellency, but that is what my Government wants you to do”. My next five years were spent in supporting the IMF in its demands – I called on the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Bank far more often than on the Minister of Finance – and vainly pleading for more aid. I was instructed by DIFID that I should not give Sierra Leone any reason to think that because of past ties it had any reason to think it had a greater call on British aid than any other African country. This despite not only the Commonwealth connection but also its extreme deprivation. The U.N. Human Development Index published for the first time in in 1991 would place Sierra Leone at the bottom: 165th out of 165.

    I left the country when the incursions from Liberia that heralded the beginning of the so-called civil war were beginning. Sierra Leone’s request for defence assistance was refused. All that I could offer were cleaning rags for their guns! I found Brian’s despatch, which I saw before I left, extremely apposite. A point in regard to para. 3(b) “Humanitarian Aid” is to ask in which countries we were considered to have special responsibilities? If we did not have one to Sierra Leone in respect of its poverty, historical ties and its willingness to come to our aid at the time of the Falklands War, where did we have one? The answer is that the trade interest was paramount. The reference to Liberia in para. 7 is perceptive. The ambitions of Charles Taylor have indeed caused turmoil throughout West Africa. The statement in paragraph 18 that “it is a century since British people ceased to be willing to tolerate massive inequality of income within their own society” reads oddly in view of the enormous payments that are accepted to a range of people from bankers and television presenters to footballers. We are told that inequality of income is increasing. Perhaps that was not so evident in 1991. The question for me now is how, from the perspective of Sierra Leone, the situation has changed in the past 18 years.

    President Momoh was ousted by a military coup in 1992 while he was heading an interim government pending implementation of the revised multi-party constitution. There followed ten years of chaos in government during which after three years of NPRC rule there was a democratic election which reulted in Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP being elected President. A year later another coup sent Tejan Kabbah into exile in Guinea (where Peter Penfold stayed alongside him in Conakry). He was restored after 9 months largely due to Nigeria. A continuing insurgency resulted in the RUF gaining control of virtually all of Sierra Leone including much of Freetown. British military intervention finally resulted in the defeat of the RUF and the settled government of President Tejan Kabbah.

    In the space of ten years the British government had, to use a now popular expression, done a complete U-turn. From not mattering at all we have decided that Sierra Leone matters very much indeed. With the democratically elected government restored and in charge, Britain took the lead in mustering a comprehensive aid programme from Western countries and financial institutions. There is now a large Development Division attached to the British High Commission. British ministers have become regular visitors. The international community is active in seeking to ensure the maintenance of democratic government as it was in the elections last year which saw the replacement of Tejan Kabbah and the SLPP by President Ernest Koroma and the APC. An International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT) is there to guard against the resurgence of rebellion. Yet the British interest in material terms is still insignificant. Is there a greater consciousness of moral responsibility more evident in a Labour rather than a Conservative government? Was the personal interest of Tony Blair whose father taught at Fourah Bay College a factor – he is even now visiting Sierra Leone to try to encourage investment. Whatever the reasons, they must be political rather than economic.

    Unfortunately for the “little people” things are not much  better. There is peace, but not much gain from the awakening of British and international concern. Government is still inefficient and corrupt. Much of the aid is misapplied or misappropriated. People are still waiting for the “peace dividend”. In the UN Human Development Index Sierra Leone disputes the bottom place with Afghanistan. There is concern that the conditions which led to the war in the first place – in particular a mass of young people unemployed and with no hope except to emigrate – still prevail. Sierra Leone is growing as a centre for the drugs trade in West Africa. A major concern for the British Government now is to keep Sierra Leoneans and drugs out of Britain. Sierra Leoneans returning to their country to visit and perhaps assess the prospects of a return come away in despair.

    To what extent is Sierra Leone a microcosm of of what is happening throughout Africa? In one respect Sierra Leone is surely singular. It is inconceivable that Britain should intervene militarily in any other African country. If it is out of the question in Zimbabwe, where the British interest is greater and the position of the people more dire, there is certainly nowhere else that we might intervene. It is said that Botswana is the only African country where corruption is not a problem. So far as corruption is concerned, therefore, Sierra Leone is in line with every other country except Botswana. So far as redevelopment and stability are concerned, Africa is a hotch-potch. There are the disasters of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Darfur and Somalia. On the other hand Rwanda is redeveloping remarkable well after the genocide. Angola and Liberia are recovering under better leadership. East Africa, especially Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia are doing better than West Africa. Somaliland is an unrecognised haven of good government. I find the comment of Graca Machel very pertinent. Speaking of Africa’a potential not only to feed 900 million Africans but also to meet food shortages in other countries she has said: “But using money wisely means more rigorous efforts to root out corruption. Good clean government is not an optional extra but essential to fulfil Africa’a potential.”

    Brian wrote that Africa “has no developed area to turn to as trading partner, aid donor and protector than western Europe”. Even when I was in Sierra Leone China was its major aid donor, the first country that a newly elected president visited. China has been a major aid donor to Africa for many years, the first to attract attention being the Tanzanian railway. The object initially was to wean African countries from recognition of Taiwan, but they have become major markets and now that China has the world’s second largest economy its influence is growing greatly. Richard Dowden in his book “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles” writes “small amounts of aid can work well in local contexts. But aid from the outside cannot transform whole societies, whole countries. That can only come about from producing things and trading them or doing something someone else wants to pay for. Ironically it is the capitalist West that still sees Africa as a continent that needs aid, while Communist and former Socialist governments like India and China see it as a business opportunity”.

    There is no doubt that in the 21st century Africa is going to matter very much in global terms. An important question for Britain is whether a Conservative government, if we are to have one next year, will recognise this. It was a Conservative prime minister, Macmillan, who spoke of “a wind of change ” blowing through Africa. Will a later Conservative prime minister recognise that it is growing to gale force?     

    Brian writes: I am most grateful to Derek Partridge for this illuminating and thought-provoking account, which serves as a very useful case study and commentary on my 1991 despatch. On one of Derek’s many interesting points, prompted by my own remark that western Europe is Africa’s only natural source of support, I recognise that China has long been a major aid donor to African countries, but I agree with Richard Dowden that this is to be seen as primarily “a business opportunity”. This contrasts with, for example, UK development aid, whose sole purpose (according to the relevant Act of Parliament) is to reduce poverty. Aid for any other purpose would nowadays be illegal.

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    […] Note: This is the text of a despatch to the then Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, Douglas Hurd, which I sent in January 1991 shortly before the end of my posting as British High Commissioner to Nigeria, my last African posting and the end of my involvement in African affairs which had begun in London in 1957.  The despatch was classified CONFIDENTIAL.  It has been declassified by the FCO and released to me under the Freedom of Information Act.  I have put some comments on the despatch and on the contrast between the policies and attitudes in 1991 which it describes and those now, in 2009, on my blog: please see […]