The British Empire Library

Back Seat Driver

by Oliver Knowles

Courtesy of OSPA

J C Edwards (Chairman, Kenya Society)
Oliver Knowles' account of his life and times was mostly written in the 80s for his family. He was later persuaded to prepare it for publication by John Lonsdale (who writes a perceptive foreword) with the help of his wife June, herself a noted biographer (under her maiden name Elizabeth Watkins). We should be grateful that this happened because, although Oliver Knowles disclaims any pretension to being an author, he writes with the clarity and economy of the best civil servants.

The sections of his book which will most interest the readers of this journal are those on Kenya where he went in 1949 as a member of the Colonial Service accompanied by his wife. She had strong links with Kenya where her father Oscar Watkins had been a senior administrator and her mother Olga a member of Leg Co. Like most newly appointed officers Oliver Knowles spent his early years in a succession of short postings ranging from Turkana to Kiambu where he became aware of the stirrings of Mau Mau and met Kenyatta. In all these posts his background as an Oxford economics graduate and his experience as a staff officer in the Indian Army during the war (culminating in promotion to lieutenant-colonel at 24) were obviously of great value. His talents as an administrator and economist were soon to result in a move to the Central Secretariat in Nairobi. During a sabbatical year he returned to Oxford to do research on agricultural marketing and on his return was posted to Kisii. This was his last experience of 'boma life' as he calls it which he and June clearly did not relish.

In 1955 Oliver Knowles was posted to the Treasury in Nairobi which seemed his natural home and where he had a distinguished career including a period of secondment to the UK Treasury. He made a valuable contribution to securing development aid for Kenya in the run up to Independence for which he was awarded the OBE.

Following independence he became deputy secretary in the Ministry of Finance and for a while acting permanent secretary. He was also appointed by Kenyatta as secretary of a commission of inquiry into the maize industry. These appointments made him increasingly aware of the dangerous growth of corruption in the new government which no doubt contributed to his decision to leave Kenya in 1969 and join UNCTAD to work on intra-regional co-operation in East Asia, the Pacific and West Africa.

In the epilogue of his book Oliver Knowles uses this wide experience of the developing world to address the question of why post-independence economic growth in Africa has lagged behind that of East Asia. He concludes that the root problems holding back Africa are excessive population growth and corruption and hopes that Kenya will lead the way in reducing corruption in Africa.

The Kenya sections are the most absorbing but the whole of the book is of interest as an account of a life lived to the full in often demanding circumstances during a period of great changes in the world. Oliver Knowles is a highly talented administrator who accepted the challenging opportunities which came his way, did much good work and enjoyed a wonderfully varied, peripatetic career. This, of course, put great strains on family life but he and June overcame these with great ingenuity. Oliver Knowles was by no means a 'back seat driver' and June managed to fit in a career of her own in many fields making, like her husband, the best use of the opportunities that came her way. Her own memoir of her war service Cypher Officer^ has been published this year.

British Empire Book
Oliver Knowles
Pen Press Publishers Ltd
978 1 906710 08 8


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