How history shows us that accountability is key to succesful development projects

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One of the greatest single development projects ever undertaken in Africa turned into one of the greatest failures and biggest financial scandals of its time, largely because there was no proper accountability.  The wrong people were taking the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons, quite often at the wrong time.  Exploring how and why that happened offers important lessons for getting development – and projects of all kinds – right today.

The story is told in my new book, Imperialism and Development: the East African Groundnut Scheme and its legacy.

The Groundnut Scheme was launched by the British Government in the aftermath of World War Two to provide Britain with more oilseeds to turn into margarine and so increase the meagre ration of oils and fats for the British public – essential to alleviate the post-war austerity.  Encouraged by Unilever, through the United Africa Company, the Government decided that 3 million acres (over a million hectares, or 5,000 square miles) of ‘empty’ bush in what is now central Tanzania should be turned into the largest mechanised groundnut farm in the world.

The British Minister of Food, John Strachey, secured £25 million from the Treasury on the promise of swift results in time for the 1950 election, and proceeded to launch the scheme with all speed.  Agricultural experts who warned that the environmental conditions were not suitable, that rainfall was unpredictable, and that the costs and challenges were being under-estimated, were ignored or side-lined.  Strachey’s optimistic vision of a transformative scheme enthused everyone, and things got off to a flying start.

But they soon hit problems.  The bush did not want to be flattened, the bulldozers kept breaking down, the local infrastructure could not cope with so large a scheme and, to cap it all, the rain never came.

The Labour Government had insisted that the scheme be run by a government corporation as a model socialist enterprise.  But the Overseas Food Corporation, set up in 1948 to manage the scheme, was based in London and effectively responsible to no-one.  The Minister installed a friend as the Chairman, and proceeded to bat off all criticism in Parliament as rumours began to circulate that things were not going well. 

The colonial administration in Tanganyika, let alone the African inhabitants, had no say in any of this.  The decisions were made thousands of miles away by people who knew little of Africa and were focussed on British priorities.  Locals were never consulted and expert doubts were dismissed by politicians in a hurry.  There was almost no scrutiny of the decisions and precious little of the implementation. 

The local Wagogo people looked on with bemusement as the crazy white men made mistake after mistake in an environment they knew well and had farmed for centuries.  But convinced of their technological mastery, the ‘groundnutters’ (as they were called) ploughed on ever deeper into disaster.

The only real accountability was to the British Parliament.  There the Labour Party had a commanding majority of over 100 seats and could easily see off criticism from the opposition – at least until the press got involved.  Then the Treasury, who were seeing their precious money go to waste, also began to ask questions and, after some ferocious Parliamentary debates, the scheme’s abject failure was exposed.

In 1951, the whole project was closed down with the loss of £36 million – a vast sum, equivalent to over £1 billion today.  This was roughly equal to total expenditure on all colonial development and welfare for the whole colonial empire from 1945 to1951, and represented £2 per head for every British taxpayer.

The lessons were clear: don’t pursue economic projects for purely political ends; don’t ignore the experts; do ensure adequate transparency, and make sure that the views of the taxpayers and the people affected are taken into account as well as those of government ministers.

But governments in neither Britain nor Africa seem to have learnt them.  Independence marked a watershed that in this case did not help.  Anything the colonial administration did was considered irrelevant in the brave new world of African self-rule.  Governments would now deliver for their own people, not a Parliament thousands of miles away.  But what exactly would they deliver? 

Tanzania is a classic case.  Impatient for faster change, only seven years after independence and sixteen since the Groundnut Scheme failed, Nyerere’s government embarked on the policy of ujamaa villagization, designed to transform agriculture and society in the interests of socialist progress.  All the lessons were ignored: the people were scarcely consulted, and responsibility was to the party hierarchy, not the people.  Even if the policy was ideologically attractive, its planning was flawed and its implementation in places disastrous.  The policy largely failed, to the heavy cost of Tanzanian citizens.

Examples can be multiplied across the continent of economically disastrous projects pursued for reasons of political vanity or populist politics, carried out in haste and repented at leisure, once the money was gone.  The same is true in Britain and many countries everywhere.  The only question is whether these failures are exposed and their lessons learnt.

No government likes to advertise its failures.  As with the Groundnut Scheme, they prefer to cover them up, or find somebody else to blame, and then make the same mistakes over and over again.  That is where accountability is key.  Without a free press or a Parliamentary opposition to ask the embarrassing questions or reveal the true facts, governments will not be forced to think twice before making the same mistake again.  In the event, the Groundnut Scheme was held up to public ridicule in both the press and Parliament, and this was one of the reasons Labour lost the 1951 election.

Everyone should read this story, because if we don’t learn its lessons, we are condemned to repeat its mistakes.  And then we will just have one Groundnut Scheme after another.

For more information and to get a discount on the book, click here.

The book is being launched on 13 October via a Zoom webinar. For more information and to attend, click here.

Nick Westcott is Director of the Royal African Society and Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

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