World Bank Survey Missions and the Politics of Decolonization in British East Africa, 1957-1963*

Article excerpt

In the same years in which they gained independence, the East African territories of Tanganyika, Uganda, and Kenya also received three economic survey reports from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, or World Bank).1 This coincidence was not lost on contemporary observers. Alan Peacock noted for instance that "[i]n a remarkably short space of time the wind of change in Africa has brought Tanganyika all the major status symbols of an independent country set on rapid economic development, including a visit from an International Bank Mission."2 A reviewer of the Kenya report identified a rationale behind this link: "[w]hen a business is handed over to new owners it is customary to take stock of its assets and liabilities. Similarly, when African countries are finally overtaken by democracy the elected government is liable to be presented with a World Bank Report on the economic development of their country."3

This connection would also not have surprised those who, mainly in the 1970s, attributed many of Africa's economic problems to its continued economic dependence, sustained culturally and politically by Western neocolonialism.4 However, most of the recent literature on the decolonization of the British Empire has since served to dispel the notion of "imperialism after empire," arguing instead that Britain lacked both the capacity and the determination to continue to shape its colonies' postcolonial future.5 Despite occasional claims to the contrary, Britain's retreat from empire did not proceed according to a preconceived plan. The conditions and timing of transfers of power were often dictated by circumstances over which Britain had only the most rudimentary control. British ambitions now appear to have been mostly limited to getting out with honor and avoiding either political collapse or the emergence of openly hostile successor regimes. The neocolonialist argument has been further undermined by detailed research into the actions and attitudes of big business during decolonization, which has exonerated one of its prime suspects.6 The combined result of these research trends has been to downplay the active production of continuities linking Africa's colonial past to its postcolonial present.7 This study of the politics behind the World Bank's East African survey missions aims to counterbalance this trend by shedding light on some of the ways in which colonial practices and orthodoxies were actively reproduced despite Britain's limited "neocolonial" ambitions.

The argument is organized in two parts: Part I focuses on the decision-making process leading to the invitation of IBRD survey missions into East Africa. The recasting of Britain's international economic and political relationships in the late 1950s both helped to create the conditions behind the requests and constituted the framework from which the missions' potential dangers and benefits were evaluated. Part II analyses the interaction between the IBRD experts and the British colonial administration and the ways in which the missions' reports were influenced by British concerns such as the need to limit financial claims on Britain and the undesirability of recommendations in the currency field. While the invitation of IBRD missions into East Africa did not form part of any British master plan for the decolonization of East Africa, pressures in this direction were seized upon by the Colonial Office in an attempt to reconcile the two mutually exclusive aims of countering mounting pressure for increased development expenditure, with the anticipated consequences for British resources, and maintaining good relations with nationalist elites. The reports emerging from this interaction endorsed and reinforced colonial economic policies, while East Africa's independence in financial matters was postponed.


The initiative to invite World Bank general survey missions originated with the East African local administrations, not the metropolitan Colonial Office. …