The British Empire Library

How I Failed To Save The World, Or Forty Years Of Foreign Aid

by Gordon Bridger

Courtesy of OSPA

John Smith (Nigeria 1951-70, Western Pacific 1970-78)
Gordon Bridger will be a familiar name to those working on development projects in the dependencies during the seventies. He was the ODA economist inclined to pour scorn on our amateur attempts to put into position the basic infrastructure required for 'take-off'. Having grown up in the shadow of the Great Depression and experienced the difficulty of getting European economies going again after World War II, we took J M Keynes for granted and rejoiced in the inspiration J K Galbraith provided. Economists then commanded more respect than they do just now and we did our best to mould our projects to meet Bridger's criteria and gain his approval. We were all in the business of saving the world.

Bridger has now written an amusing and self-deprecating account of his own failure to do just that, although his account is more of an engaging travel memoir than a serious analysis. He grew up in Argentina, worked his passage to England and graduated from LSE in its Laski days, reinforcing his left-wing propensities. Turned down for public sector jobs, he took a Master's in agricultural economics and was appointed an economist in the Central African Federation Ministry of Agriculture. He then worked for the United Nations in Ethiopia until, bi-lingual in Spanish, he was posted to the continent of his birth to a job in Chile.

In 1966 Dudley Seers, Director General of Economics in the newly created Ministry of Overseas Development, gave Bridger the job of Senior Economic Adviser for Latin America. It was an exciting time with great expectations for the application of development economics to the Third World. He found the ODM (as it was labelled), compared with the UN, free of ideological pressures and preferment intrigues, facts not politics the key factor, but power lay with the administrators and as a professional he could only advise. It didn't feel that way when you were at the receiving end!

Bridger moved to an African schedule and later to the last few dependencies, about which he writes with zest and charm. He is complimentary to the Overseas Service 'based upon concepts of public service which do not exist in non-colonial countries and which have already disappeared in ex-colonial countries'. His cynical insights into the relationship between professionals and the diplomats who were now in charge are fun to read, as are his criticisms of academic economists, but he has little to say about what really determined policy, contenting himself with emphasising the dangers of over-dependency. He did, of course, write more seriously about development planning at the time. Over the years he moved from advocacy of central planning to market-led strategy and, topically, warns about the danger of reckless mis-investment. He completed his remarkable odyssey as a Liberal councillor in Guildford with the honour of serving as Mayor.

Response from Gordon Bridger (24th June 2009)
I wish to thank John Smith for his tolerant review of my book How I failed to save the World, or Forty Years of Foreign Aid and would like to use this as an opportunity to record that it is my belief that the Colonial Administrators played a unique and overall a highly beneficial role in the countries they administered (after the reforms in the 19th century). For many countries (mainly in Africa and the Pacific), and for most people (not necessarily the new ruling class), their period of administration will be seen as a golden age.

I say this having worked for many administrations, and in most countries of the developing world (I was not a member of the Colonial Service). I worked for the United Nations, the European Community, in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific as well as IBRD and several UN specialized bodies. I had close working relationships with members of the Colonial Service in many countries - Eastern Africa, Central Africa, the Pacific and Caribbean. The Colonial Administration was alas a unique system, for it provided a measure of impartiality, integrity and competence which no longer exists in most countries they once administered. Other international organizations did not possess the dedication one found in the Colonial Administration - to serve the people they administered.

Why should this have been so? It can in part be explained by attractive salaries and security, and education which few public servants in developing countries possess. They were also fortunate in that in their time spears rather than Kalashnikovs were the common weapons to hand to harass District Administrators. There was also, now sadly missing in the public services of most countries and most international institutions, the ethos of public service.

While the concept of the public good was not unique to the Colonial Administration and can be found in many individuals in all countries and all institutions, from my experience in many countries all over the world it was collectively absent from most of them. It is best summed up by a Latin American colleague in the United Nations when I told him that I was trying to persuade the UK to establish an agricultural research station in the Amazon, who said, “Gordon, what’s in it for you?”. Alas in most countries the public sector is there to be plundered and to serve the interests of one’s relatives and friends. Loyalty, in most public services in developing countries, and in most international institutions, is firstly to one’s family, then one’s community, or tribe or group and then one’s country.

Why this public service ethic should be such a restricted ethos is rather puzzling, and largely restricted in scale to the countries of north western Europe (though individuals in all countries can be found who serve the public, national or international). No doubt it can be partly explained by the breakdown of the family and “tribe” in industrial countries and a much stronger sense of nationality - so that it is easier to escape local family pressures, while the Protestant ethic helps as well. It is possible that Baden-Powell and the Scout movement have strengthened this sense of public duty.

Bad or poor governance is not, of course, restricted to developing countries. Many EC members expect that staff working for the EC serve them rather than the EC. Traditionally the British Civil Service has maintained this high standard of public service, but over the last few years bonus schemes and politicisation appear to be undermining the public service ethic.

British Empire Book
Gordon Bridger
Author House UK Ltd
978 1 4343 9445 3
Also by the Author
Britain and the Making of Argentina


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