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Three memoirs of British aid




Gordon Bridger

How I failed to save the World – or forty years of foreign aid

AuthorHouse 2008


James Winpenny

Economical Escapades: the life and times of a jobbing economist


George Gwyer

Dilemmas in Development: Journeys of an Agricultural Economist

AuthorHouse 2016


Jim Winpenny observes towards the end of his book that Shakespeare was wrong to count only seven ages of man. There are actually eight, he says, the addition being ‘consultancy’, which merges seamlessly into senility. Many development practitioners will wince in recognition, though nowadays we call the consultancy stage a ‘portfolio livelihood’. Anyway, Winpenny needs to add a ninth stage: ‘writing a memoir’. He has lived that experience, and so have two others, Gordon Bridger and George Gwyer. They all provide accounts of life as economists in the engine room of international development, mainly in the British aid administration, covering a period from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s in the British Government, with further periods of service elsewhere after that. The three books usefully complement Barrie Ireton’s history of British aid, covering the period from 1964 onwards. I would like to say I have read Ireton’s book, but have you seen what it costs? Tim Lankester’s book on Pergau  is relevant, but also expensive (however, there is a great Youtube video of Lankester summarising the book in a lecture in Washington).  By contrast, Bridger can be bought on Amazon for one penny and Gwyer from second hand book dealers for a tenner.  To read Winpenny’s book, I think you might have to write and ask him for a copy, or persuade him to put it online. All three, by the way, are self-published, Bridger and Gwyer through AuthorHouse, Winpenny on his own account.

Bridger was first out of the blocks in terms of career, beginning in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1957, working for the ECAEastern Europe and Central Asia in Addis and ECLA and FAOFood and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in Chile, before joining the UK’s relatively new aid department in 1966.  His perspectives on ODA, later DFID, range over nearly twenty years and are followed by further reflections on his work with the Crown Agents. Winpenny was pretty well a contemporary in ODA/DFID, having worked briefly before that at the University of East Anglia. He went on to work in the private sector and at ODI, before turning to a ‘portfolio livelihood’. He has a strong reputation on water and environment issues. Gwyer taught at Wye College and worked in IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex Nairobi and for FAOFood and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in Indonesia, before joining ODAOverseas Development Assistance in 1977. He left also in the mid-1980s, for a new career in the European Commission, including two spells as EUEuropean Union Delegate, in the Pacific and the Caribbean.

There are some lessons to learn about writing memoirs, or at least features in common in these three readable and often amusing books: a chronological structure with a reflective chapter at the end; some local colour and tales of derring do; some (usually) affectionate portraits of colleagues; wry observations about the idiosyncracies of national and international bureaucracy; and a careful balance between self-justification and self-deprecation. Gwyer’s is the most substantive of the three books, somewhat longer, better referenced, and benefiting from wider experience, especially in the European Commission.

There are many good stories in the books: surviving a revolution in Ethiopia (Bridger), sampling banana wine in Rwanda (Winpenny), Friday meetings with both the above in Eland House, then ODA’s headquarters (Gwyer). For those of us steadily working our way through the ages of man, accounts of ODA/DFID in the 1970s and 1980s bring back many memories: seminars in Eland House with Bob Porter; Land Rover trips in the forest with Peter Stutley or Tony Peers; well-thumbed copies of Bridger and Winpenny’s manual on project appraisal; folk memories of Dudley Seers and Judith Hart.  There are many projects whose names still resonate: Winban (bananas in the Caribbean), IBFEP (fertilizer education in India), Mahaweli (irrigation in Sri Lanka). I expected to hear more about Mpika (rural development in Zambia) or, actually, Pergau. Probably everyone will recognise the glamour and occasional terror of travel in those days, the potential for diplomatic gaffes, the tedium of international meetings, the sheer pleasure of working on real world problems in the field, the satisfaction when the lives of poor people actually improve. Perhaps not much has changed in those respects.

There are also some issues of current concern.

First, it is notable that all three of these authors started as field workers in various ways, designed and supervised projects for part of their careers, and then gradually worked their way up to a more senior and rarefied position with less ostensible contact with the eventual clients or beneficiaries. I remember once sitting on a plane to Copenhagen, sandwiched between Phil Raikes and Robert Wade. Both had started their careers in rural development. They spent the whole flight discussing global capitalism and financial crises. That’s fine as long as engagement with the poor does not drop off the agenda and is suitably rewarded by agency incentives. This is a phenomenon Robert Chambers has written much about and has acted to tackle, for example persuading the World Bank to insist on village immersion for all officials. Do they still do that, I wonder? And do other agencies see the need?

Second, seniority also brings with it different kinds of responsibilities – more managerial, and usually more political. Gwyer writes interestingly about the difficult step up from being a technical specialist to an aid manager and agency representative. I wonder. How well do agencies equip their staff to make this transition?

Third, the world has changed and there have been shifts in the development agenda during the years covered by these books. Aid agencies have changed also, but perhaps some skills have been needlessly shed. The geographical focus has certainly shifted. Who, now, specialises in the development issues of the Pacific countries? And who in DFID, these days, knows how to apply the techniques of project appraisal?  Yet, this knowledge and these skills may be useful in a world in which, for example, the debate on climate change is driven by Pacific countries like the Marshall Islands; or in which environmental externalities loom large. It is interesting that Winpenny was a pioneer of environmental analysis in development, though especially during his period at ODI.

There are other topics where a thread connects the present and the past. The shift to a poverty focus following the 1975 White Paper is one example, with many familiar issues about measurement and attribution. How to work in fragile states is another, though poorly governed or conflict-affected countries were not identified as such in earlier days. Humanitarian aid might be a third. Neither Bridger nor Winpenny has much to say about this, but Gwyer finds himself arranging local purchases of food for famine relief in Sudan in 1986, on behalf of the EU. Structural adjustment and macro-economic policy might be a fourth. There is little discussion of structural adjustment per se in these books, or of debt relief, but the issues arise in other forms, for example in discussions of agricultural price policy, export price stabilisation or programme aid. What is notable is that all three of these authors left the then ODAOverseas Development Assistance in the mid-1980s, Bridger for one victim of a reorganisation which arguably under-valued experience. Others were to follow, including the clear-out of infrastructure specialists during the Clare Short era from 1997. Only now are energy and infrastructure back on the agenda.         

Fourth, and this is the think-tank veteran speaking, I was surprised by how little interaction any of the authors report having, during their time with the British Government, with Ministers or Parliament. Gwyer had more contact when he became an EUEuropean Union Delegate. However, I don’t think any of the authors has much to say about manifestos or parliamentary enquiries, or, for that matter, NGONon-governmental organisation campaigns. Or the Daily Mail. A similar point could be made about cross-Whitehall work, another topic very little discussed. I found myself wondering whether the hierarchical, sometimes senior common room-like atmosphere which appears to have characterised the lives of DFIDDepartment for International Development advisers was healthy. And does it still apply? My sense is that DFIDDepartment for International Development now recruits from quite a diverse pool, and that outside contacts are nurtured. Cross-Whitehall work has certainly grown in importance, for example on security or climate change. But is there policy on this? Are there metrics? And should there be more secondments?

Finally, it was striking that both Bridger and Winpenny are relatively little engaged, at least by their own accounts, in shaping international institutions. Mostly, they find themselves sitting through interminable meetings, causing a certain amount of trouble, and then coming home. Gwyer is in a different position, moving from ODAOverseas Development Assistance to the EU, and working to build the multilateral system. I’m not sure the Bridger/Winpenny account is complete, given the importance to the UK aid programme of the World Bank and the salience of debt relief during their time. The Mexico crisis, after all, was in 1982, and the Lawson Plan in 1984. Were these entirely in the hands of the Treasury? In any case, global governance is surely a prime concern of DFIDDepartment for International Development officials today. At least, I hope it is.

If these points are correct, the past is not entirely another country, and they perhaps didn’t do things quite as differently there as we sometimes think. What is certainly true is that aid officials in the old days, as represented by these three authors, were as committed, thoughtful and entertaining as their counterparts today. The threads to the past should be celebrated.


# Other books on this topicJames Winpenny 2016-08-20 19:20
Just for the record, the other memoirs of possible interest to ex-toilers from ODA/DFID are:

Jeremy Berkoff “Incidents in the life of a development economist” (Privately published. He was only briefly in the ODM in the late 60s, and there are longer sections on his work at EIU, Huntings and the World Bank). He was (is) an irrigation economist.

E.T. (Ted) Laing, “Travel to work in Seventy Countries” ( (Ted is an independent ports economist. While not specifically about ODA/DFID this book is a fascinating travelogue about the life of a development consultant and the countries he has worked in.).

Finally, Hilary Sunman, “A Very Different Land: memories of Empire from the farmlands of Kenya”. Very expensive on Amazon, but much cheaper on Kindle. (This is a biography of her father, who trained at Wye and went to Kenya in the inter-War years as an Agricultural Adviser with the Colonial Service. It has many insights into the rural development of Kenya over past decades.)
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