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
USE 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 Eederation 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 recldess mis-investment. He completed his remarkable odyssey
as a Liberal councillor in Guildford with the honour of serving as Mayor.
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
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
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
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.