Decolonization assigns both culpability and credit to indigenous independence movements from Dublin to Delhi. The winds of change are never from Windhoek or Malawi. Rather they are always from Washington or Moscow. Hitler felt that it was rival empires more than national insurgency that propelled the process of decolonization. The Congo Free State was an unconventional empire, owned and operated by King Leopold II. It was a ‘Heart of Darkness’ from which he lined his pockets and funded ostentatious public and private construction projects in Belgium. After WW I, the Treaty of Versailles draped the crudity of conquests with a veil of morality. Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine were made British Mandates, while the French got Syria and the Lebanon. The German colonies of Togoland, Cameroon and East Africa were added to the British possessions in Africa. Additionally, the Bismarck Archipelago and the northern Solomons went to Australia and South-West Africa went to South Africa, Western Samoa to New Zealand and northern New Guinea. Phosphate-rich Nauru was shared between the two Australasian dominions and Britain. By the end of WWII, the British Empire collapsed. The bottom line is always the economy.

Exhausted by the costs of victory- Britain could no longer carry the costs of Empire. The Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton was certain that the best foreign policy was to get out. Viceroy Lord Mountbatten brought forward the date to leave India to August 15th 1947. By 1949, the British bequeathed to the world the unresolved question of ‘stateless’ Palestinians. When the war ended in 1945, Washington unexpectedly terminated the Lend-Lease arrangement and John Keynes travelled to the US and Canada to discuss the United Kingdom’s contribution to the war effort. Keynes prayed for a grant or a gift. He was given a loan. The U.S. didn’t realize that Britain was bankrupt. The loan was denounced in the House of Lords. In the end- they had no choice. America offered $US 3.75bn and Canada contributed another US$1.19 bn at the rate of 2% annual interest. The loan was made subject to conditions, the most damaging of which was the convertibility of sterling into the dollar. The subsequent run on the Bank of England’s reserves initiated the first in a succession of sterling crises that have punctuated Britain’s retreat from Empire. In the immediate post war period, grand designs for a ‘new’ Empire spiralled like incense in churches. Marvellous sounding hymnals like the Colonial Development Corporation were sung alongside the evensong for the Federation of the West Indies; of East Africa; of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland; of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Borneo. The choir even called for a new Colonial Office.

The Crown Agents travelled the world selling old British trains and boats to any colonial government foolhardy enough to pay and even to those who could not. The Commonwealth had declining economic importance. Membership within the European Economic Community and a reorientation of British trade away from the Commonwealth was inevitable. The original aim of the Colonial Development Corporation in 1948 was the development of self-sustaining agriculture, industry and trade across the Empire. In the mid-1960s, it became the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC). In 1997, Tony Blair declared the CDC a trendy ‘public-private partnership’. It was his first attempt to involve private capital in state-owned businesses with the CDC carrying on as a benign investor in poor countries. Its new mandate was to invest in socially responsible projects that were also profitable. Led by Alan Gillespie, formerly of Goldman Sachs, the new team found that the CDC’s assets were mainly in fish farms in Zambia, sugar plantations in Swaziland, tea estates in Kenya and Malawi and forests.

The misfortune is that agriculture in Africa produces at best a return on capital of 8-9%, less than half of the 20% return demanded by the typical emerging-market investor. Workers were laid off, offices closed and farms and forests prepared for sale. The new CDC went off in search of investment opportunities to achieve higher financial returns demanded by private markets. It found them in telecoms, banks, health care, minerals, oil and gas, and property. The CDC is wholly owned by Britain’s Department for International Development. Its Minister at that time was Clare Short, a relic from the age of conviction politics, believed that its £2 billion budget should be spent purely on poverty alleviation. Nonetheless the CDC was restructured and ‘Actis’ was created as a spinout from the CDC Group. A 60% stake was sold to CDC under a five-year ‘umbrella’ guarantee. Likewise ‘Aureos’- a private equity fund manager operating in emerging and developing markets started to work alongside the CDC.

Today, development partners recognise that the winds of change include private funders and investors including venture philanthropy as important parts of the global development architecture for former colonies.