LONDON, ENGLAND – Boasting three quarters of a century of “investing for development”, British International Investment recently unveiled its new name along with a five-year plan to pour billions of pounds into technology, climate and “inclusive finance” projects across Africa, South East Asia, and the Caribbean.
Thick layers of marketing copy peddle the familiar themes of hyper optimistic innovation and economic growth so commonplace in 21st century corporate literature. From the document’s executive summary to its conclusion, the cheery, calculated vacantness of each paragraph leaves us with a sense of a promise waiting to be broken.
British International’s CEO, Nick O’Donohoe, peppers his foreword with key buzzwords like “green, renewable” and “sustainable” or “inclusive”. As the co-founder of Big Society Capital (BSC) with Sir Ronald Cohen, O’Donohoe can claim to be one of the originators of this new ‘conscious’ capitalist lingo. BSC was the world’s very first venture capital firm dedicated exclusively to funding startups focused on social impact, and emerged out of the UK government’s own initiatives to foster this space.
Now, the former Colonial Development Corporation (CDC), as British International Investment was once called, has become the UK’s primary vehicle for the propagation of the impact finance model. Repeatedly referring to itself as “the impact investor” in the paper, the wholly-owned property of the UK government estimates that £5 to £6 Billion will be invested throughout the Commonwealth over the next five years, and Africa in particular.
British International, O’Donohoe writes, will be “one of the world’s largest climate investors in Africa” as well as offering “radical solutions to global challenges” faced by the economies on the continent by investing in “financial digital transformation” projects and “technology-based businesses”. A recent Tech Crunch article lists some of the earliest recipients of the Crown’s largesse, which include several private equity firms, fintech and smart infrastructure startups based in Africa, but controlled by Western European or American concerns.
Perhaps the most noteworthy is British International’s continuing investment the Energy Access Relief Fund (EARF), a public-private partnership revolving around massive hydroelectric projects in Africa between the Shell Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, World Bank, International Finance Corporation, USAID and many others. Their involvement in EARF precedes British International’s fresh rebranding and in many ways feels like a reprising of the institutions and relationships that were integral to its formation seventy-five years ago.
Before launching into a more in-depth exploration of British International’s current portfolio and the people who are leading the merger of development finance with impact finance, it behooves us to take a journey into the origins of this organization, the nature of so-called development finance and Western capital’s undying and violent obsession with Africa.
In the paragraphs and pages that follow, the impetus driving the aid and development finance paradigm embodied by British International Investment and other development agencies will be explored through an unorthodox interpretation of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, positing that the conflict was a deliberately orchestrated public ritual of death and suffering, executed at the highest levels of the Anglo-American establishment, in concert with the Catholic Church and other religious entities to rescue a failing hegemonic project in the second half of the twentieth century.
Unable to maintain the post-war international monetary policy established after the war, the best laid plans of the Western liberal order were beginning to crumble under their own weight. Cold War rhetoric was hardly enough to convince France and Germany to keep their dollar reserves and the promises made by the industrial elites and their bankers to rebuild the world had run aground at the Suez Canal.
Development was associated with reconstruction and rebuilding what the war had destroyed, and therefore temporary. A new, more permanent project had to be found, dug up or invented so that the economic daisy-chain would not be broken and the colonial tethers could remain invisibly in place. The solution was poverty and all the social ills caused by the condition that only the wealthy can address and, crucially, also create.
The African continent, so vast and full of riches, was the cornerstone of Cecil Rhodes’ deranged plan to restore the British Empire to its former glory. His colonial madness infected a whole generation of fellow countrymen and Anglophiles across the pond and around the world who would work towards a similar end, rebranding their neo-colonial visions with eco-friendly, social justice themes to better conceal their relentless quest for economic, social and spiritual domination.
Replenishing the Queen’s Coffers
The creation of the Colonial Development Corporation in 1947 had been preceded by rumblings in the UK Parliament about the Colonial Office’s neglect of the far flung territories held by the Crown, which had seen a spike in “disturbances” and riots as a result of the economic hardships of the Great Depression.
A Commission formed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Malcom MacDonald, in 1938 to investigate conditions in the West Indies confirmed “the low standard of living [..] and the extent of the poverty and ill health that exist in them” and served as the political impetus for the beginnings of a long-term Colonial development policy.
Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) was also facing pressure from a growing unease in society at large regarding colonialism itself, further compounded by Germany’s demand that the UK return its colonies in East Africa – placed under British mandate after Versailles –, leading to what was dubbed in those days as the “Colonial Question“.
However, the real inflection point only arrived after the war, when the Queen’s coffers were running dangerously low and food and raw material shortages threatened the British Isles themselves. Suddenly, addressing the issues faced by the colonies became a top priority, and the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee placed ‘decolonization’ at the top of its agenda, led by his foreign minister, Ernest Bevin.
Appealing to the political sensitivities of the working classes that voted them into power, the Attlee administration leaned into the anti-colonial messaging, with an official party hand-out distributed in the summer of 1946 going as far as declaring that “British Imperialism” was dead. Just after the creation of the CDC, Attlee’s Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook, summarized the propagandistic “conundrum” posed by the hastily-established agency in reference to Africa, specifically:
“At recent meetings there has been general support for the view that the development of Africa’s economic resources should be pushed forward rapidly in order to support the political and economic position of the United Kingdom… [This policy] could, I suppose, be said to fall within the ordinary definition of ‘Imperialism’. And, at the level of a political broadcast, it might be represented as a policy of exploiting native peoples in order to support the standards of living of the workers in this country.”
Brook went on to warn Attlee that if the policy were to be “disclosed incautiously or incidentally without proper justification and explanation”, the political ramifications would be grave. Fully aware that the very survival of the British pound was riding on the successful implementation of the new policy, Brook thus offered a solution that has come to characterize international aid and development policies ever since:
“It can, of course, be argued that the more rapid development of Africa’s resources will bring social and economic advantages to the native peoples in addition to buttressing the political and economic influence of the United Kingdom.”
It is at this point when arbitrary concepts like the “Third World” or “developing” nations begin to take hold of international economic discourse and the tarnished vocabulary of Colonialism starts to recede into the background, and British Colonial territories are rebranded as the Commonwealth of Nations. Even the development finance agency’s acronym was quickly substituted for the new terminology, becoming the Commonwealth Development Corporation, instead.
Britain itself was in a period of transition, as the barely-concluded Bretton Woods conference ushered in the pillars of a new Atlanticist order through the establishment of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, more widely known as the World Bank. Attlee’s promise to “recapture Britain’s economic independence” by exploiting its colonial properties was critical to maintain its balance of payments in the face of the new dollar standard.
As Brook counseled, Attlee’s government continued to shape the narrative through the lens of decolonization while the real work went on behind the scenes. Bevin’s close advisor and Toynbee protégé, Sir Harold Beeley, worked side by side with OSS agent and head of the American intelligence outfit’s Africa Research Section, Ralph Bunche, to incorporate these neo-colonial economic concepts into the structure of the recently-created UN.
Beeley, a high-level UK intelligence asset since the late 1920s, had been in charge of the Palestine desk for Toynbee’s Foreign Research and Press Service during the war, and was a critical figure in the subsequent economic transition of the region as the British Mandate was partitioned into their ‘decolonized’ borders. As Chairman of the Anglo-American inquiry on Palestine, Beeley was also highly instrumental in the creation of the Zionist state, and was the invisible hand behind Bevin’s secret policy decision to allow Transjordan’s annexation of British Palestine, described by some as the “malevolent midwife at the birth of the state” of Israel.
Central to these machinations was the imperative to retain control of the oil reserves in the Middle East and North Africa, which held the key to post-war Western hegemony. Other parts of the African continent had yet to feel the brunt of the “oil curse”, as some disingenuously term the socio-economic effects, that deliberate acts of sabotage, political manipulation and blackmail employed by powerful energy interests and their state level accomplices, invariably have on the populations unlucky enough to live near the valuable resource.
That would change in 1956, when the Royal Dutch Shell Company, then operating as Shell D’Arcy, struck oil in the eastern part of Nigeria. Within less than a decade, American, French and Italian oil companies would also start operations in West Africa, setting the stage for one of the most brutal conflicts the world has ever known and the first steps of the impact finance regime.