Imperialism and Development
My book explores how the reality of development does not always match the vision, and how imperialism distorted the priorities of African economies in the 20th century. It does this through a case study of the infamous East African Groundnut Scheme, which was initiated by the British Government in Tanzania (then Tanganyika) in the 1940s to increase the supply of oilseeds to Britain after the Second World War. It was a catastrophic failure, and wasted the equivalent of £1 billion on a scheme that never had a chance of working. The story is an intriguing and entertaining mix of hubris, circumstance, personality and politics, and the reasons for failure are a catalogue of ‘how not to do it’. There are lessons for development planning and for all forms of megaprojects that we have still not learnt today, particularly where political priorities do not align with simple geographic and economic facts. The latter always win in the end.
The hardback was warmly welcomed by historians, development experts, Africa experts, economists and geographers, was well reviewed in academic journals, and enjoyed by all who read it. The contemporary resonance with similarly failed schemes everywhere was noted. But the hardback price rather inhibited the casual reader. I’m delighted that a paperback edition will bring it to a wider audience.
There were three fathers to the scheme: Frank Samuel, Managing Director of the United Africa Company, who wanted a supply of groundnuts for Unilever’s margarine factories in the UK; John Wakefield, the agriculturalist, who wanted to prove that modern ‘scientific agriculture’ could transform Africa overnight; and John Strachey, the British Minister of Food in Clement Attlee’s Labour Government, who was desperate to increase the ration of oils and fats for British families, and determined to do it through a state-run corporation to prevent the private sector profiting from it.
Two other men played key roles: Max Nicholson, who warned from the very start that the scheme would be a disaster, and was proven right at every turn; and Dr Hugh Bunting, the agronomist who did all he could to make the scheme work, but concluded early on that they were heading in completely the wrong direction.
For some reason the scheme attracted colourful characters: Dick Plummer who was plucked from managing Beaverbrook’s newspapers to manage an agricultural development scheme; or Maj-Gen Harrison who had out-engineered the Japanese in Burma but was defeated by the African bush. But the wisest were perhaps the local Wagogo farmers who sang (in their local language so the Groundnutters couldn’t understand): “Look at the crazy wazungu (white people), trying to grow crops where the rain doesn’t fall…”
All governments like to bury bad news, and all oppositions like to dig it up. The fiasco was used by the Conservative Party to damn the Labour Government in the 1950 and 1951 elections, which ended with Labour losing power to the Tories for 13 years. The scheme became a laughing stock, the butt of many a Parliamentary joke, and – as one Cabinet Minister remarked, a government ‘never recovers from being laughed at.’ Labour preferred Attlee’s government to be remembered for founding the NHS, giving independence to India and helping set up NATO rather than for digging a grave for groundnuts in the African bush.
The British never attempted another scheme like it in Africa, but after independence, the lessons were forgotten and politics – this time local – once more dominated development planning.
Spike Milligan has always been a hero of mine. He fought in the war and was trying to make a living as an entertainer afterwards, as the Groundnut Scheme was ploughing to its failure. It became a by-word for over-ambitious, over-sold, over-technical and over-budget government schemes. Each new scheme of this kind in the 1950s and ‘60s was labelled ‘another Groundnut Scheme’. And then along came Concorde. Spike’s cartoon just captures the scheme’s legacy and reputation in one go.
But Concorde was by no means the last. Today, HS2, the ill-fated high-speed railway, has all the hallmarks of being another Groundnut Scheme. Just watch…
That we can learn as much, or more, from failures as we can from successes. And if we don’t learn the lessons, and remember them, we’re condemned to repeat those failures over and over again. The other message that I think stands out starkly, and resonates strongly today, is that if a politician comes to you with a plan that sounds too good to be true – answers all your problems with no pain at all – then it almost certainly is: don’t believe them!
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NICHOLAS WESTCOTT is Director of the Royal African Society and Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. His previous posts include Managing Director, Middle East and North Africa, and prior to that Managing Director for Africa, European External Action Service (EU), Brussels.