Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

The upside of development: recognising success when we see it

Written by Vince Cable


One of the most underrated factors in development is the idea of positive thinking: the belief that success is achievable. And there is certainly plenty of negative thinking in the sector. On the political right, there’s the narrative about wasted aid funding, corruption and government incompetence, as well as the feeling that money should be spent at home – not on foreigners. On the left, there is little room for successful development between the scourge of neo-liberalism, exploiting multinationals and predatory elites.

There’s plenty to be negative about

When I went to Kenya in the mid-1960s as an ODI Fellow, my experience soon showed me there was plenty to be negative about. I took with me the book of the moment by the French agronomist René Dumont, False Start in Africa, all about money wasted on snow ploughs in Guinea and gold beds for ministers in Ghana. 

Coups proliferated. There was a civil war in Nigeria and the Republic of the Congo. The liberation of Southern Africa was going backwards with Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence and Nelson Mandela in gaol. Kenya was facing tribal warfare and an impending Malthusian disaster with a 3% population growth and ever-growing land-hunger.

My only previous experience in a developing country had been a year earlier when travelling through India as a student. There was a famine in some areas of the country which would later experience the Green Revolution, and extreme poverty was palpable. India was the ultimate, hopeless, ‘basket case’ – until the even more hopeless Bangladesh came along a few years later.

Little was known of what was going on in China, but the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s was beginning after Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward triggered a vast human-made famine, which has since been quantified as the worst in human history. By comparison, Africa was a beacon of hope.

After two years in the Kenya Treasury, I acquired a portfolio of projects which I had helped to get off the ground. One I was particularly proud of involved getting the Norwegians to pay for a road to support a fishing industry designed to help the nomadic pastoralists around Lake Turkana diversify out of cattle. It regularly features in the list of the world’s worst development projects.

Not enough is made of the success stories

But some projects in Kenya were successful and I believe are still going strong half a century later: smallholder credit and advice for growers of tea, pineapple, sugar and vegetables; a Dutch horticulture project which created an industry now employing tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands eventually); tourist infrastructure financed by the Germans; an Israeli water supply project; industrial estates for small and medium-sized enterprises; and a Russian hospital paid for with Cuban sugar.

My experience has taught me a few basic things about successful development projects.

  • The importance of good project managers, preferably local;
  • The enormous entrepreneurial potential of small farmers and local business people given the right price incentives, tenure and access to credit;
  • The need to avoid permits, licensing and other temptations for sticky-fingered ministers;
  • and ensuring that current spending for maintenance and operation is covered as well as capital. 

Overall, the basic indicators of human development have shown impressive gains globally, reflected in the fact that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have either been met or surpassed for: poverty and hunger reduction; school enrolment and literacy; child mortality and maternal health; the eradication of killer diseases; and the education and health of girls.

We can quibble about the measurements in achieving the MDGs and of course there are deficiencies on metrics in particular countries. But the overall trends are positive. And although much of the economic progress has been in Asia, the African story is also one of real progress where a growing numbers of countries have managed to combine economic progress with political pluralism: Ghana most obviously.

I have been a fairly frequent visitor to India, less to China. But I have seen enough of the successful Chinese economic transformation to be amazed and regard politician Deng Xiaoping, the main architect, as one of the truly great figures of modern history –notwithstanding his disdain for Western political liberal values.

His Indian equivalent, to the extent that there is one, Manmohan Singh, should get the credit for delivering economic reforms which have made India one of the world’s fastest growing countries within the framework of a robust democracy.

Bangladesh is another – albeit less publicised – development success story. Viet Nam, Thailand, Malaysia and, earlier on, South Korea have made palpable economic and social progress. There are also many development horror stories associated with the squandering of natural resources, especially oil and wealth (as did Britain). But there are also successes such as Oman and Botswana (to whose development a fair number of ODI Fellows contributed).

However, one of the biggest development success stories so far is closer to home: the UK’s commitment to overseas development assistance has grown by over two-thirds in real terms this century, despite the political unpopularity of generous aid programmes. During the Cameron–Clegg coalition of 2010, the 0.7% of gross domestic product (GDP) target was honoured despite enormous temptations to slash spending to take the pressure off other budgets.

Reflections in the Covid-19 era

Today, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of the progress made in development could be wiped out – less due to the virus itself than resulting from the collapse of economies which has followed it. Hundreds of millions in the Indian subcontinent, Latin America and Africa are being plunged back into the poverty from which they seemed to have escaped. Those Kenyan flower and fruit growers, game park guides and small-scale industrialists face destitution.

It is difficult at this early stage of the pandemic to estimate the net effect of Covid-19 on the poorest countries. Health services are being overwhelmed in several big cities in Africa, while in India migrant workers are facing extreme hardship resulting from the crass and sudden lockdown.

However, having experienced Ebola and a young population and therefore, a healthy demographic overall, some African countries have shown real signs of resilience. Facing collapsing markets for exports and falling tourism, the damage is likely to come from the economic fallout rather than the virus itself.

With high-income countries struggling to cope with Covid-19 economically themselves, the instinct will be to say ‘charity begins at home’. The case for development aid will have to be made all over again. But I hope that in this time of great need, the past experiences of success will serve as encouragement that with a period of generous aid, debt relief and market access, progress can soon be resumed.

This blog is part of the ODI at 60 series which explores how to build a better world beyond Covid-19. Join the conversation with #GlobalReset #ODI60.