Approaches to international development, like much else, have been subject to changes in “fashion” over the past 50 years — partly as a result of evolving experience in the development task and because economic thinking, political structures, social norms and technology have all undergone profound shifts.
When I first worked in the developing world in the 1960s as a volunteer in Zambia, most of the then newly independent countries in Africa — and the donors providing them with assistance — saw government as the primary engine for promoting economic growth. Not just in terms of providing economic infrastructure and essential social services, but also through extensive direct ownership of major industries, agricultural enterprises and marketing channels. Directly or indirectly, the influence of the models adopted by China and India were profound. Optimism prevailed that the job of transformation would be done within 10 or 20 years.
Over the next decade, working for the government of Swaziland as an Overseas Development Institute fellow, in Malawi as a U.N. Development Program "operational expert" and later in Nigeria, Tanzania and elsewhere as a management consultant, I saw this initial optimism fade. Disillusionment with total reliance on government initiative with its proneness to corruption; fracturing of political structures that had often been hastily defined or imposed from outside; social disruption occasioned by ethnic rivalries; displacement of populations as people flocked to urban centers in search of wage employment, which few found; and then the scourge of AIDS.
All of these factors played their part in the new narrative of development failure across Africa.
International investors largely evaporated, donors often despaired and some governments became almost dysfunctional. Small pockets of resilience remained, but living standards stagnated or fell back. Development perspectives began to change and expectations became more modest. Much greater emphasis was given to providing basic services in agriculture, health and education and ensuring access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. The need to make governments more accountable and to encourage private sector development gradually took hold. Grass-roots enterprise and microfinance were encouraged, while large public enterprises were sometimes dismantled, often privatized.
These domestically led trends were reinforced by global ones. Accelerating growth in China and other parts of Asia created a thirst for resources that drove renewed interest and investment in Africa’s rich natural endowment. Little by little, despair gave way to new hope and modest but sustainable improvements in both incomes and quality of life. Over the past decade, this progress has been consolidated and in countries with more stable environments it has accelerated.
What does the future hold? Daunting challenges still lie ahead. Universal access to all basic services is still an elusive dream but, with determination, it can be achieved in the next 10-15 years.
Domestic and foreign investment in energy, mining, large-scale agriculture and infrastructure are at record levels and create valuable employment, including many skilled jobs. A sizable middle class is emerging. Information and telecom technologies are providing opportunities to leapfrog older infrastructure and provide access to modern services at a fraction of former cost. And yet, there is still much fragility: political instability, civil strife and the prevalence of killer diseases like Ebola or malaria.
What does all this mean for Crown Agents? First and foremost it means that, while the task of supporting development is far from complete, the context in which we operate has changed enormously and will continue to do so at an accelerating speed. Even to survive in this fast-changing and often still difficult world, you need to be prepared to change continuously. To succeed you need to be agile, innovative and able to see and manage risk very effectively.
Over its long history, Crown Agents has had to change a great deal and several times almost completely reinvent itself. Our range of services, our global operating network and our use of technology have evolved to meet changing client needs and to satisfy changing development “fashions.” But change can be difficult, especially in an organization proud of its history and tradition and sometimes we have not moved fast enough. Our financial performance in 2013-14 bore this out. With a number of very large contracts coming to an end in 2012-13 we had been slow to replenish our business pipeline. We faced stiff competition from other players considered more agile and innovative than us and often without the costly overheads born of past ways of doing business — painful restructuring was necessary. At the same time we were committed to making significant investments in the core technology systems that underpin our business.
As we move toward completion of this process of restructuring, we are now better equipped to play our part in the next phase of the global development task. We are more focused and bring depth of expertise in critical areas ranging from humanitarian emergency response to the procurement and provision of lifesaving health products and from reform of government processes to support for economic growth and trade.
Key systems investments are paying off and changes have helped us free up staff from cumbersome manual processes and reduce our overhead costs. We are simplifying processes and empowering key staff while also increasing individual accountability. We are streamlining where we can but holding firm to our values of integrity. Delivering results in difficult circumstances and fragile environments remains our hallmark. But we are also more nimble and more flexible.
Our current work on behalf of the U.K. Department for International Development and other donors helping Sierra Leone fight Ebola, this crisis is putting our new approaches and systems to a new test. Our people are responding magnificently, using technology-supported procurement, modern supply chain management processes and logistics to meet the challenges of rapidly growing needs, seemingly impossible deadlines and delivery to very difficult locations of lifesaving equipment and medical supplies.
In parallel with — but in contrast to — our work in response to humanitarian emergencies, we are also committed to tasks supporting sustainable development and economic growth. Our reputation in the field of international trade extends from customs reform and improved border management to use of technology for the creation of “single window” platforms for trade facilitation, helping governments create a more hospitable environment for international trade and investment and allowing entrepreneurs to get their goods to market and import essential supplies much more efficiently.
By constantly changing ourselves, we aim to play a constructive part in meeting the changing demands of international development now and in the years ahead.
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