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Dossier | Afrique : 50 ans d'indépendance

How Development Assistance from France and the United Kingdom Has Evolved: Fifty Years on from Decolonisation

François Pacquement
Translated by Noal Mellott
p. 51-75
This article is a translation of:
Le système d’aide au développement de la France et du Royaume-Uni : points de repère sur cinquante ans d’évolutions depuis la décolonisation [fr]


France and the United Kingdom are influential backers when it comes to the global governance of aid to developing countries. A short history of the contributions made by these former colonial powers to ODA is presented, covering the institutions concerned, strategies conducted and funding provided. These institutions have undergone complex changes since the initial phase of making “improvements” in the colonies up until recent reforms. Their ambitious strategies, grounded on considerable research, have received attention from a multilateral audience, turning the colonial question into a global issue. The vision of aid in both France and the UK is broader than is conveyed by the calculations that are carried out by the OECD’s DAC. Though subject to political contingencies, aid from these countries amounts to a substantial contribution that seeks to respond to various development needs.

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The author would like to thank the editorial board for its comments and also Maureen McWhirter of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) Public Enquiry Point, who provided such detailed answers to his questions. He assumes full responsibility for the ideas expressed herein, which do not necessarily reflect his employer’s position or opinion.

official development assistance (ODA), colonial | colonisation, international cooperation, history, independence

1. Introduction

1Fifty years after the wave of independence in Africa, let us take a look at parallels in the official aid systems set up by two former colonial powers. British and French aid policies share various traits and wield influence, as evidenced by the amounts involved (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Official development assistance from France and the United Kingdom as a percentage of gross national income, 1960-2009

Figure 1: Official development assistance from France and the United Kingdom as a percentage of gross national income, 1960-2009

Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.
Notes: Diamonds: France; squares: UK.

2Beginning the history of aid in 1960, as in figure 1, raises a question: how did a new policy starting out with substantial funding in both France and the United Kingdom (UK) come, over time, to carry less relative weight? Putting aid policies into perspective means taking another look at the ideas initially motivating them. The origins of aid shed light on current debates and sometimes even remind us that such debates have already taken place, as the British think-tank, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), suggested in its 1999-2000 annual report (ODI 2000).

3Shortcuts and simplifications are inevitable when trying to present an overall picture, drawn from several sources, of complex trends in this policy field. The author, a specialist in French aid, is more familiar with that subject than with British aid. Let us proceed by examining the institutions involved, aid strategies and the economics of aid for both these countries.

2. Institutions

4The institutions distributing aid have a genealogy running back to the period before independence. They have inherited a legacy from both the colonial era and the Second World War.

2.1. The seal of the colonial administration

5During the Second World War the colonial administration underwent major changes; then, after independence it played a role in managing aid.

  • 1 In 2009 the remaining Cooperation services left the building on Rue Monsieur, which had been sold t (...)

6After the Liberation in France the Ministry for the Colonies was split into two ministerial departments: one for “associated States” and the other for overseas France. Their authority extended over all of French Africa south of the Sahara and French territories in the Pacific (including the New Hebrides, a British-French condominium that became Vanuatu upon independence in 1980). From 1950 to 1955 the administration responsible for relations with the associated States (at first a ministry and then, after 1953, a State secretariat) conducted French policy with regard to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. When it was abolished in 1955 its duties were transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1950 a ministry was set up for France’s departments outside Europe (i.e. the four present-day overseas departments plus three departments in Algeria), its protectorates (Morocco and Tunisia) and the associated States of Indochina. In 1954 it took quarters in a building specially built for it on Rue Monsieur in Paris, where it would be succeeded in 1959 by the Ministry of Cooperation (see table 1).1 Civil servants ranked as administrateurs coloniaux were dispersed, mostly between the Ministries of Cooperation and Foreign Affairs, but also, to a lesser extent, to the Caisse centrale de coopération économique (CCCE).

Table 1: France: Ministry of Cooperation inherits part of the Ministry for the Colonies

Table 1: France: Ministry of Cooperation inherits part of the Ministry for the Colonies

7The British colonial administration met a similar fate, since it joined the Department of Technical Cooperation created in 1961 (see table 4). This grouped experts from several other ministerial departments, in particular the Colonial Office. The Department of Technical Cooperation’s activities waned and the Colonial Office merged with the Foreign Office in 1968 (see table 2).

Table 2: United Kingdom: merging of the Colonial and Foreign Offices

Table 2: United Kingdom: merging of the Colonial and Foreign Offices

2.2. The Resistance, a source of inspiration for French aid

8In 1941 Free France set up the Caisse centrale de la France libre (CCFL) to manage revenues and the circulation of currency in several lands, mostly in Africa. The CCFL would later help formulate a reconstruction policy for overseas France and devise the financial instruments for carrying out this policy, while continuing to enjoy the right to issue currency in overseas departments (including Algeria) and territories (including French West and Equatorial Africa). In 1944, after its name changed to Caisse centrale de la France d’outre-mer (CCFOM), its authority extended to the field of development. Compared with those from the colonial administration, the Caisse’s experts on development (the great majority of whom came from the ranks of Free France or the Resistance) were, in principle, more sensitive to their African comrades-in-arms who had brought to Free France its first territories. Their mentality and style were totally different to those prevailing in other administrations involved in aid, and all the more so since the Director-General of the CCFOM till 1972, André Postel-Vinay, was a former member of the Resistance who began his career in London (Bridier 1991) and whose term of office at the CCFOM spanned several generations.

9The 46-860 Act of 30 April 1946, inspired by Postel-Vinay, foresaw the establishment, funding and execution of ten-year development plans for the territories under the Ministry of Overseas France. The top priority in these plans was social progress and satisfying the population’s needs. This Act set up the Fonds d’intervention pour le développement économique et social (FIDES), a fund for distributing grants to overseas territories from the State’s budget and creating “mixed-economy companies in which the State and public authorities in overseas territories (…) will have a majority holding”. The CCFOM represented the government’s share in the capital of these companies, to which it granted long-term loans. It set up public housing companies and credit firms, thus giving birth to a generation of local development banks. Its employees, imbued with the mentality of Free France and the Resistance, formed the first wave of French executives specialised in economic aid, which they tackled as a financial problem. The CCFOM was assigned to manage FIDES, whose activities prefigured those of the Ministry of Cooperation. In addition, the CCFOM directly provided loans. By the late 1940s its core activities were defined. It became the CCCE in 1958 and then, in 1992, the Caisse française de développement (CFD), till 1998 when its name changed to Agence française de développement (AFD).

2.3. Contrasting institutions

10The institutions involved in aid took over from the colonial administrations, but the calendar and “genealogy” of this transmission differed in France and in the UK.

2.3.1. For France: cooperation

  • 2 Until 1997 young men, at the age of 18, were drafted for up to ten months, but they could choose to (...)

11Created by General Charles de Gaulle in 1959, the Ministry of Cooperation (see table 3) had the assignment of developing the “countries within its scope”, mainly former colonies in Africa. It provided technical and military assistance to these countries. “Cultural cooperation” played an important part in this aid. Starting in 1962, the Ministry would send volunteers (coopérants) abroad.2 It had 154 employees in 1964. By 1996 637 persons were working in its central administration and 366 in the field (Cumming 2001). Its scope gradually extended to cover all French-speaking countries in Africa to the south of the Sahara and, in 1995, to English-speaking and Portuguese-speaking Africa and to the Caribbean Basin.

12The Minister of Cooperation was a full-fledged minister, who sat on the Cabinet and Defence Council. When a Socialist coalition came to power under François Mitterrand, it was renamed Ministry of Cooperation and Development. When Jacques Chirac became President and Alain Juppé Prime Minister, it was incorporated into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Table 3: France: official aid system, 1957-95

Table 3: France: official aid system, 1957-95

13In 1960 the CCCE was conducting activities in 14 recently independent countries and in France’s overseas territories. Besides FIDES, it managed the Fonds d’aide à la coopération, which provided subsidies to independent States. It combined the activities of a development bank and of an agency for implementing French aid policy. In France’s overseas territories and departments the CCCE provided support to local authorities and financed the economy. In accordance with French public law, it was a public institution of an industrial and commercial sort and also a specialised financial institution. Its statutes subjected it to many controls.

14In addition to the aforementioned institutions, a unit directly attached to the French President deals with African affairs, and there are influential networks to which the media often allude. Cumming (2001) has referred to the “relational, even irrational” aspects of French aid. This system, which might funnel aid through murky channels, has quite clearly been condemned by critics who call it Françafrique.

2.3.2. For the UK: a more recent approach to development

15The British Ministry of Overseas Development was long in forming (not till 1964). Although the UK had started granting independence in the 1940s, its system of aid was not organised till the 1960s, when the Department of Technical Cooperation was formed under a secretary who did not sit as Minister of State on the Cabinet. When Labour came to power, a Ministry of Overseas Development was set up, this time with its head being a member of the Cabinet. As power switched back and forth, the head of aid would sit on the Cabinet (under Labour) or not (under the Conservatives).

16The emphasis on economic development is what sets the UK’s policy apart from that of France or Germany with their ministries of “cooperation”. Does the word “development” not reflect the language used by the World Bank and the name of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), institutions bearing John Maynard Keynes’ mark? From the viewpoint of France, Germany and, after 1965, the Netherlands, the word “cooperation” is more in harmony with the idea, embodied in the 1957 Rome Treaty, of an association with developing countries.

17Set up in 1964, the Ministry of Overseas Development implemented the Treasury’s White Paper. From the start, it had on its staff economists and statisticians who took part during budgetary discussions. Its staff grew from 23 in 1965 to 120 in 1968 (Cumming 2001).

Table 4: United Kingdom: official aid system, 1961-2009

Table 4: United Kingdom: official aid system, 1961-2009

18Was aid to be a separate policy field, or should it be placed under Foreign Affairs? The French and British responses have shifted since the 1960s. At present the UK has clearly opted for the first solution. Clare Short, a top-ranking politician, was appointed to head this ministerial department, a sure sign of the government’s commitment to development.

19In France the choices made are not so easy to interpret. At first a major concern was to separate policy-making from its application. Policy-making came out of a delicate balance between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Department of the Treasury and Economic Policy (Direction du Trésor et de la politique économique), the latter handling about two-thirds of French aid through international financial institutions and the AFD. The AFD, which puts policies into application, operates under the authority of four ministries. However, its control over operations qualifies it for several strategic duties and it has become the point of contact for international organisations. The role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is ambivalent. Its part in setting geographical and sectoral priorities is significant and its staff is very much involved in managing aid policy. Nonetheless, it has been afflicted by the attitude (often criticised by its members) of diplomats who see aid as an inferior activity.

2.4. A period of reform

20After the Cold War ended aid was scaled back and a period of reform began.

21In France President Chirac, with Alain Juppé as Prime Minister, sought to address the problem of insufficient coordination among the administrative services active in aid. As a consequence, four actions were undertaken. First of all, the Ministry of Cooperation merged with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Secondly, the purview of the minister-delegate in charge of Cooperation and the CFD was expanded to countries of the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) zone, including South Africa. Thirdly, the Comité interministériel de l’aide au développement (CIAD) was set up and chaired by the Prime Minister. It was to improve cooperation in the system of aid by jointly discussing geographical priorities, the policy appropriate for each recipient country and France’s position in multilateral negotiations. Finally, “local” aid committees, chaired by the ambassador, were formed to harmonise the programmes conducted by French organisations, including non-governmental organisations and local authorities in France.

22After the government changed in 1997 Lionel Jospin’s cabinet (1997-2002) launched a reform that, in 1999, merged the services of Cooperation in the Ministries of Cooperation and Foreign Affairs into the Direction générale de la coopération internationale et du développement (DGCID). In addition, an economic and financial service was organised within the Ministry of Finance, which retained all its powers, including the representation of France in international financial institutions. The CFD became the AFD; this “pivotal operator” would now manage most aid programmes under the authority of these two services.

23The broader idea of a “zone of priority solidarity” replaced the notion of a geographical “scope”. The rationale of financial engineering led to “mutualising” risks, the latter diminishing when shared among several countries or sectors. The AFD thus saw its zone of intervention gradually enlarged to include major emerging countries.

24The CIAD was renamed the Comité interministériel pour la coopération internationale et le développement (CICID). The Haut Conseil de la coopération internationale (HCCI) was set up to serve as a place where officials, non-governmental organisations and parties involved at a decentralised level could discuss aid programmes.

25France’s system of official development assistance (ODA) was formally placed under a minister-delegate (see table 5). To improve the steering of this system, the CICID published strategies, which came out of broad joint discussions, by country and sector, and established annual plans, an activity facilitated by the blueprint Budgetary Act. The Révision générale des politiques publiques (RGPP) reform placed other services from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the DGCID. In 2009 the DGCID became the Direction générale de la mondialisation et des partenariats (DGMP); a high council on strategy is to replace the HCCI.

Table 5: France: official aid system, 1995-2009

Table 5: France: official aid system, 1995-2009

26Noteworthy in the UK was the creation in 1997 of the Department for International Development (DFID), an act inaugurating an era of stronger commitment to aid. This led to administrative changes. The stated objective was to fight against poverty. A strategy-based approach has been pursued even farther in the UK, one of the first countries to have introduced a budget by objectives and public service contracts. These three-year contracts enable managers to have an outlook. The performance requirements for DFID contracts incorporate the indicators associated with the United Nations (UN) Millennium Declaration.

27From 1959 to 2009 the average term of office of the ministers in charge of aid was 21 months in France and 29 in the UK. This time lapse is becoming longer in Britain, where it is now nearly the double of France: 13 months until Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, and then 46 months.

28Both the AFD and DFID have field offices with a staff distinct from the embassies’ staff. The AFD also conducts actions in French overseas territories through its development agencies.

29The European Union (EU) and then the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), through its Development Assistance Committee (DAC), have undertaken an unprecedented effort to coordinate aid donors. These efforts have brought the UK and France closer together. This convergence might have been facilitated by the process of untying aid, a decision by the DAC in 2001. Although these changes have not kept each of these two countries from maintaining its own strategic areas of intervention, their strategies share points and have evolved in parallel.

3. Aid strategies

30Each of the two donors has pursued an ambitious policy with a wide range of activities for developing countries. These policies, as well as ideas about development, were worked out during the colonial period.

3.1. The colonial heritage

31Despite differing conceptions of their colonial empires and administrations, and despite their different experiences with decolonisation, France and the UK both drew on the knowledge they had gleaned from the field during the period when they had tried to make improvements in their colonies.

3.1.1. Colonial “improvements” at the origin of “development”

32In the UK an imperial conception of the colonies prevailed, whereby colonisation would bring civilisation to “inferior” peoples. The British Empire was geographically very widespread, and its organisation not unified till the 1920s. The French Empire stemmed from a nationalistic conception of France’s power and grandeur. Less dispersed and more recently formed, it had, from the start, a single administrative corps. This corps received thorough training at a colonial school, which would later become the Ecole nationale de la France d’outre-mer.

33During the 1920s thought was given in both countries to making improvements in the colonies and plans were designed accordingly. In France the Minister for the Colonies, Albert Sarraut, drew up an investment programme under a 1921 act providing for a general programme of improvements in the French colonies. At the end of the decade the Caisse des dépôts et consignations was providing loans. The programme’s principal aim was to change the scale and doctrine for exploiting resources in the colonies, to switch from a colonial pact of tight dependency to a “close association with the populations to be won over to the market economy” by involving them in scientific and economic progress. Chauveau (1994) has shown how the Sarraut plan affected the approach to rural development, even in the case of the World Bank.

34The UK underwent a parallel experience. As early as 1919 Lord Milner, a former Minister of the Colonial Office, called for systematic efforts to develop infrastructures and resources in the British colonies. In 1928 the UK adopted the Colonial Development Act, but its intentions were ambiguous. It was defended in parliament for its impact on employment (Abbott 1971). After all, the 1929 crash was not the best time to altruistically try to develop the economies of far-off lands. Few funds were actually appropriated; this Act depended on donations and loans, the latter eventually inducing the wealthiest colonies to take on excessive debt.

35Although neither the French nor the British approaches mobilised a massive amount of funds, they did imply that direct exploitation was no longer acceptable and that investments should eventually serve the interests of both the colonies and the colonial power, albeit in a general and indirect way.

3.1.2. The social question

36As Cooper (2004) has described, the switch towards colonial improvements coincided, in the social sciences, with a tension between economic development and the conservation of the integrity of overseas societies. Improvements were deemed a threat. During the 1930s and 1940s the social sciences tended to see the colonies as rural areas; meanwhile, several rather violent social conflicts broke out in Africa. Taking into account the social question and the well-being of the inhabitants was a positive shift in the idea of colonial improvements, a shift effected through two parallel approaches.

37As of 1940 the White Paper on Colonial Policy was serving in the UK as the basis for a new approach, which led, in 1940, to the adoption of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act (Abbott 1971). Aid increased five-fold. After the war these efforts were pursued through a new, more generous Colonial Development and Welfare Act (Barder 2005) and the introduction of development plans (Dosser 1959).

38The French colonies played a major role during the Second World War. The troops called up from the colonies represented a contribution that was all the more valuable because they were often exposed during combat. During the Brazzaville conference in January 1944 General de Gaulle met with the representatives of Free France (mostly authorities in the colonies who had rallied to the cause) and evoked a vision of development in association with French nationals living in the colonies. His speech presented development as a sharing of wealth and aid as a form of redistribution by France beyond its borders.

3.1.3. The shift towards “development” and the eventuality of independence

39The concept of a Third World appeared in Alfred Sauvy’s writings in 1952 and it was borrowed by Georges Balandier in 1956. It took hold in poor countries, especially in the speeches pronounced by the heads of State and of government of non-aligned States.

  • 3 In his definition, in 1951, of the “colonial situation” Georges Balandier commented that it “appear (...)

40During the 1950s the ideas of development and well-being were increasingly combined to form a concept close to what would come to be known as “human development”. This prepared public opinion in the colonial powers for the eventuality of independence. The growth of the social sciences on this colonial soil (Cooper 2004) led to both a rationalisation of the colonial venture3 and the preparation for decolonisation (Sibeud 2004). The colonial question aroused mixed feelings. In both countries concerns were arising about the cost of colonisation, especially in France due to Cartiérisme. This current of thought, borrowing its name from the journalist who launched it, claimed that the colonies cost too much.

41Veterans returning to their homes in the colonies played an important role in criticising the colonial order, itself in the throes of change. Colonialism could no longer be quite as authoritarian. Forced labour was abolished in 1946. Social movements appeared and were sometimes violent. An intellectual elite was emerging in the colonies. Some of its members, such as Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Léopold Sédar Senghor, had held political office in the French National Assembly or Cabinet.

42In 1955 the Non-Aligned Movement was formed at the conference of Asian and African States in Bandung (Indonesia); 29 heads of State from the two continents attended. The five countries (Burma, Ceylon, India, Indonesia and Pakistan) that had extended the invitation were united by their concern with keeping the major powers at bay. Both colonialism and neo-colonialism were criticised. This movement held its first summit in Cairo in 1961.

43The change that occurred during the colonial period would be repeated when the approach to aid shifted from improvements to development. In effect, the field of development seems riven by recurrent debates. During the 1950s and 1960s the prevailing economic models emphasised investments. Only in the late 1980s, after the debt crises and structural adjustment programmes, did the concept of development expand to address social issues. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) introduced the concept of human development in the early 1990s.

3.2. A post-colonial policy in quest of legitimacy

44Aid has had to stake out a place in the policies of both the former colonial powers and the former colonies.

3.2.1. For the donors

45In the former colonial powers the legitimacy of aid had to be proven once the colonies were proclaimed independent and colonial administrative practices came to an end. Aid had broad theoretical grounds. It would be one of the first policy fields to come under review. Monitoring and evaluation procedures were, we might say, congenital with post-colonial aid policies. Although the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a first guide for evaluation in 1959, donor countries were slow to adopt such practices. France did so in the late 1970s.

46The motives underlying aid were unclear, often irrational. For Niblock (1970), who rejected outright any ethical motivations, the UK wanted to provide incentives for countries to stay in the Commonwealth. In France the motivation behind aid was the diffusion of French culture. According to this same author, outraged by the fact that aid was not tied to political conditions, claims that the Cold War motivated aid policies do not stand up under scrutiny because the nations aided by the two blocs were not among the countries apt to switch sides.

47One argument was clear, however, i.e. the financial burden of developing the colonies would now have to be shared, whence investments in international organisations which recycled the qualifications of colonial administrators.

48The complicated relations between aid and other public policy fields have varied from a protective line demarcating it from foreign affairs and sustainable development, to an aggressive quest for coherence in international trade, immigration, research and, more recently, the environment.

3.2.2. For the beneficiaries

49As for the beneficiaries, they were countries where the organisation of the State bore the marks of the colonial administration, methods used for big projects and institutions moulded by indirect rule (Cooke 2003). This legacy of an institutional and legal system from the colonial period served as the basis for “technical cooperation” following independence (another means for recycling the colonial administrative work force) and for more recent operations aimed at “capacity building”.

50Independence tended to be a formality in some cases. From 1956 to 1960 France tried to maintain its privileges in Africa through its military bases, administrators and control over the currency, as well as its bilateral aid policies. This aid was indispensable to governments that were unable to cover their operating budgets. Aid and the issuance of currency were, for a few years, in the hands of the CCFOM. According to Bancel (2002, 40), “Everything was set up to follow a policy based on a connivance between the first generation of elites now in power and French authorities that conditioned, beyond independence, the pursuit of colonial designs in other forms.” This is the basis for the aforementioned Françafrique. Changes in the UK were less clear-cut.

51Developing countries eventually reformed their administrations by turning away from “politics” and towards “expertise” (Darbon 2003). In fact, politics became fully discredited in the late 1980s, following the structural adjustment programmes, when France and the UK began tying their aid, and then European aid, to political conditions. Bilateral aid, however, has been relatively exempt from such conditions.

3.3. Research, public opinion and the many facets of aid policies

52Scientific research was part of colonialism from an early date. In addition to investment programmes, FIDES financed research and development establishments in overseas territories. The aim was to better understand African peoples and thus facilitate colonialism. Research in agronomy, medicine, geography, demographics and anthropology was supported by setting up research centres, Pasteur institutes and even museums (Gaugue 1999) or by laying out botanical gardens, like the one in Kew, for identifying tropical plants with the most economic potential. Haynes (1999) has shown how such investments affected British colonial medicine.

53Scientific research has remained a major component of the ODA provided by the French and British governments. France’s relative pre-eminence in this respect can be attributed partly to the fact that development research was institutionalised. This research is, therefore, easier to evaluate. The strategic value of aid drew sustenance from research findings, either directly or via think-tanks. In this regard, the UK’s ODI is typical; it has brought together a critical mass of documents on aid.

  • 4 The chronological markers I have used in this article cannot always reflect this profusion of repor (...)

54Aid policy is a topic of debate in both countries. In the UK white papers have been released at key moments, mainly by Labour governments (in 1960, 1965, 1975 and more frequently since 1998). In France the quest for a policy resulted in several reports by members of parliament or experts: nearly one per year since 1961.4 These reports incorporate the findings of research. One of the first examples was the Jeanneney Report in 1963, with contributions from major scholars, including Pierre Auger (a physicist and a former director at UNESCO), Georges Balandier (a sociologist) and François Perroux (an economist), and from top civil servants from various backgrounds, such as François Bloch-Lainé, Jacques Donnedieu de Vabres, Claude Gruson and Simon Nora.

55Evaluation is presented as an effort to improve the quality of aid. DFID has formulated an ad hoc strategy for 2008-13, with an announced budget of about GBP 1 billion. This investment has spawned publications available on the Internet, either directly or via the Eldis portal (​).

3.4. An aid policy has many components

56Law and language are part of the colonial legacy. English, a requirement in the education of elites in the former British colonies, has compelled recognition as a language for conveying progress. France’s aid policy has emphasised spreading French, as often pointed out, in particular by Niblock (1970).

57The cultural aspects cannot be separated from the promotion of the former colonial power’s language. The place of culture in French and British aid policies has not been adequately studied. According to Hayter (1965), the need to extend its cultural influence led France to instill its conceptions and civilisation in other parts of the world.

58From 1957 to 1962 France signed with its former colonies agreements of “cooperation” spanning all fields: politics, the military, technology and so on.

59Among the many aspects of aid, the financial ones must be seen from a wide angle. Both countries grant funds. Monetary cooperation in the franc zone was decisive in former French colonies. Though controversial at times, it provided an appreciable security for the currency.

3.5. Increasing participation in multilateral aid

60Both the UK and France maintain ambitious institutions active in international relations. Both back groups of nations, formal and informal, ranging from the Commonwealth through Francophonie to the Paris Club.

3.5.1. Expanding forms of cooperation

61Although the United States (US) exercised a relative leadership in the global governance of the economy and finances, the UK played an exceptional role at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. Its delegation was headed by John Maynard Keynes, whose discussions with Harry Dexter White were the conference’s centrepiece. These two countries “multilateralised” their bilateral negotiations on trade and finance, especially after the Lend-Lease Programme. The US wanted to challenge the UK’s imperial preference system so as to open colonial markets (Largentaye 2009). France sent to the conference Pierre Mendès France, who would later become Prime Minister, and Jean de Largentaye, who would translate into French Keynes’ General theory of employment, interest and money.

62Relations were not exempt from tension. Newly independent countries threatened to turn to other donors. The two former colonial powers were sensitive to this threat not so much because they anticipated the quite real prospects of a Cold War but rather because they wanted to keep their zones of influence from eroding. France was worried about the impact of US aid.

63Donor countries met in various multilateral institutions, both inside and outside the DAC. For instance, the ODI organised a seminar as early as 1966 on aid effectiveness (Chapuis 1967). Until the 1980s France and the UK each developed its own quite stable aid policy, an original mixture brewed from its history. They did so without toeing the line laid down by the World Bank. Sometimes they even ignored the ideas proposed by the World Bank (Cumming 2001).

  • 5 Since 1946 France had had a system for stabilising the prices paid to farmers for certain agricultu (...)

64France was reluctant about European aid even though it initially followed the French model and was oriented towards former French colonies (Balleix, forthcoming). Both France and the UK proposed new approaches to address the issues raised by development. They have wielded strong influence over European aid (Dimier 2004) and have expanded its forms of cooperation. Examples were the establishment, under the Lomé Convention, of Stabex, a system for stabilising export earnings,5 and the Sugar Protocol.

65Both France and the UK have taken part in the Group of Seven (G-7) and Group of Eight (G-8) meetings which, since the 1980s and the debt crisis, have shown an interest in aid. Under French leadership, the G-7’s agenda included, in 1996, a statement of international development objectives. In 2009 Prime Minister Gordon Brown played an important role in the Group of 20 (G-20) by seeing to it that development was not overlooked in the quest for a solution to the banking crisis.

3.5.2. Reliance on former colonies in multilateral negotiations

66The Commonwealth of Nations, an imperial creation of 1884 grouping the UK and its colonies, was originally based on allegiance to the British crown. Since the imperial conferences in 1926 and 1930, when the independence of the dominions was recognised and ratified by the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the Commonwealth has been a group of free, equal countries. It has grown as more countries (e.g. Mozambique in 1995) became independent and asked to join. It had ten members in 1956 and has 53 at the time of writing (summer 2009).

67The France-Africa summits were intended, by their instigators (Hamani Diori and Léopold Sédar Senghor, respective Presidents of Niger and Senegal), to be a sort of French commonwealth, which would later become the Organisation internationale de la francophonie (OIF). They are limited to Africa, the first two (1973 and 1975) to French-speaking countries only. Since 1976 several Portuguese-speaking countries have been invited as observers. These French-African meetings have, since 1981, been officially called “conferences of heads of State”.

68An organisation of French-speaking countries has taken shape. Originally limited to university campuses, its activities have gradually expanded. The OIF is now a multilateral organisation encompassing an area reaching beyond the former French Empire.

69Both France and the UK have fostered, more or less formally, a multilateralism centred on themselves but with a wide influence. Taking part in both Francophonie and Commonwealth summits, Canada holds a special place.

3.5.3. Drawing closer to each other

70Relations between these two systems of ODA were competitive, each operating in its own fields. However, the two started drawing closer to each other with, for the first time, a meeting in 1973 between the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), the CFD and, in addition, a German development bank (KfW). France and the UK, the two European permanent members of the UN Security Council, have marshalled their aid for development and peace, encouraged other donors to back their efforts and devoted attention to post-conflict interventions.

4. The economics of aid

71Since the wave of independence France and the UK have oriented their aid in priority towards former colonies, with which they have maintained special relations. According to the 1963 Jeanneney Report, 93% of British aid went to lands, colonies and countries belonging to the Commonwealth, while nearly 90% of French aid went to African States (including Madagascar, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia) and France’s overseas departments and territories. Aid policies do not seek only to maximise ODA but also to provide a response to problems related to development. This broadens the potential range of help.

4.1. Amounts of aid

72In the early 1960s France and the UK were, along with the US, the principal donors. These three countries accounted for three-quarters of all aid. They sought to share the cost of aid by soliciting multilateral and European contributions, in particular by setting up the International Development Association (IDA) in the late 1950s. Subsequently, as we saw in figure 1, their relative shares in aid diminished.

73Although the absolute amount of French aid seems higher, the UK, as from the turn of the new century, caught up under Tony Blair’s leadership (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Official development assistance from France and the United Kingdom, 1960-2009 (constant USD value)

Figure 2: Official development assistance from France and the United Kingdom, 1960-2009 (constant USD value)

Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.

Notes: Squares: France; diamonds: the UK.

74Whereas aid turns out to be a policy favoured by left-of-centre governments in the UK, the conclusion to be drawn about France is less clear-cut (see figures 3 and 4). Although aid decreased under Presidents Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Nicolas Sarkozy, the reduction visible under President Jacques Chirac corresponded to the period of cohabitation with the Socialist Jospin as Prime Minister. Aid increased during Chirac’s second term. Factors other than the suasion of the government also come into play.

Figure 3: Official development assistance from the United Kingdom, 1960-2009 (as a percentage of gross national income)

Figure 3: Official development assistance from the United Kingdom, 1960-2009 (as a percentage of gross national income)

Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.

Figure 4 - Official development assistance from France, 1960-2009 (as a percentage of gross national income)

Figure 4 - Official development assistance from France, 1960-2009 (as a percentage of gross national income)

Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.

75Despite the proclaimed strategy in favour of multilateral aid, the increase in British ODA has apparently been in favour of bilateral aid (see figure 5). On the contrary, the contraction of French aid has led to a larger share for multilateral institutions (see figure 6).

Figure 5: Share of bilateral and multilateral sources in official development assistance from the United Kingdom, 1960-2009

Figure 5: Share of bilateral and multilateral sources in official development assistance from the United Kingdom, 1960-2009

Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.

Notes: Squares: multilateral aid; diamonds: bilateral aid.

Figure 6: Share of bilateral and multilateral sources in official development assistance from France, 1960-2009

Figure 6: Share of bilateral and multilateral sources in official development assistance from France, 1960-2009

Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.

Notes: Squares: multilateral aid; diamonds: bilateral aid.

4.2. Aid by country

76Econometric studies of aid have shed light on the imperial preference (Berthélemy and Tichit 2004). According to the DAC’s evaluation of British aid in 2006, two-thirds of the recipients of aid from DFID in 2003-04 belonged to the Commonwealth. Brysk, Parsons and Sandholtz (2002) have pointed out that Spain, France and the UK have given proportionally more aid to their former colonies than other DAC donors. Meanwhile, their economic interests in recipient countries have tended towards the DAC average. However, these trends might change, given the converging efforts of donors to consolidate aid.

77Although the UK tried very early to consolidate its aid, it still targets a number of countries throughout the world. In June 2009 the French CICID called for targeting a population of about 200 million in 14 poor countries south of the Sahara, i.e. former French colonies plus Ghana, which are to receive 60% of budgetary means and 50% of grants. Elsewhere, France will continue to give grants, low-interest loans guarantees as a function of three categories: countries with a middle-level income that have special relations with France, emerging countries where the stakes are global and countries undergoing a crisis or coming out of one.

4.3. Aid by sector

78Given the wide range of British and French interventions (research, expertise, investments and so on, some of which are not classified as ODA), the statistics provide but a partial view of these countries’ efforts. The DFID and AFD systems of information are capable of producing sectoral statistics for measuring the targeted and actual impacts of aid. These two institutions operate in contrasting ways. DFID not only distributes more of the aid budget but also manages to balance the allocations among the Millennium Development Goals (see table 6).

Table 6: Distribution of aid by DFID (UK) in relation to the Millennium Development Goals

Table 6: Distribution of aid by DFID (UK) in relation to the Millennium Development Goals

Source: DFID, quoted by the DAC in its 2006 evaluation of aid.

79Owing to the dispersion of French aid, it is difficult to establish a similar table for France, since the data are normally presented by sector rather than in relation to the Millennium Development Goals. Table 7 presents aid with, in the last column, programmable country aid, an indicator of the actual margin of manoeuvre in aid policy. It brings to light a few noteworthy differences:

80- contributions to food aid and non-governmental organisations each amount to less than 1% for France but more than 7% for the UK;

81- the aid related to students and refugees amounts to 18% for France, whereas the UK does not declare these costs;

82- although the totals are nearly equivalent, the amount of programmable British aid is higher. However, in both countries it is less than the DAC average.

Table 7: Official development assistance from France and the United Kingdom, 2005 (in USD millions and percentages)

Table 7: Official development assistance from France and the United Kingdom, 2005 (in USD millions and percentages)

Source: DAC (2009).

Note: Three headings have been omitted: administrative costs, aid via other agencies and miscellaneous.

4.4. Leverage and venture capital

83British aid policy has proposed loans since 1929, and French policy since 1946, these being loans distinct from the credit for subsidising exports, which is managed by other institutions in both countries. Aid through loans soon overburdened with debt the wealthiest colonies, which had easier access to this sort of credit. Since the wave of independence the proportion of loans in British aid has decreased, whereas France, with the AFD, has maintained a high level of loans.

84The objective of responding to developing countries’ needs has been more important than the goal of fitting aid into the DAC framework. This implies providing a wide range of funding and even shareholding programmes. Interventions in equity play a major role, when banks stipulate as a condition for loans that equity must be raised, thereby providing financial guarantees as well as ensuring an operation’s technical quality. The DAC classifies these various forms of aid under the heading “other contributions”.

4.4.1. The Colonial Development Corporation

85In 1948 the Overseas Resources Development Act created the Colonial Development Corporation (CDC) to boost Britain’s investments in its colonies. The aim was, also, to increase the supply of goods to the mother country which, recovering from the Second World War, was trying to cope with shortages. The CDC’s staff came from the colonial administration or had experience in the colonial environment. The first years were difficult. The CDC helped colonial officials identify opportunities for development. However, several of its projects failed, sometimes spectacularly.

86However, the CDC gradually improved its project management techniques and broadened its range of operations (Brain and Cable 2008). In 1963 the referent of the first C in its abbreviation switched from Colonial to Commonwealth. The assignment was to launch operations in the colonies and independent countries belonging to the Commonwealth or even developing countries in general. In 1991 the CDC’s statutes set the objective of helping overseas territories develop their economies. Its zone of intervention spans 68 developing countries. It has intervened or invested in 50 of them: 19 in Africa, 12 in the Caribbean Basin, 10 in Asia, 4 in Latin America, 4 in the Pacific and 1 in Europe (Gibraltar). Its main investments involve loans and the acquisition of shares in order to establish or expand firms in the productive sector.


87In parallel to the creation for the private sector of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) as a subsidiary of the World Bank, France decided in 1956 to back ventures by local development banks in the private sector. Such banks, which existed in most of its colonies, were thought to be more familiar with the local economy. The banking system in overseas territories was to be developed through establishments more oriented towards the long term than business banks could be.

88In the 1970s, after a period of providing low-interest loans via banks specialised by sector, the French government turned towards venture capital operations. To extend this approach into the field of development, the Societé de promotion et de participation pour la cooperation économique (PROPARCO) was set up in 1977. Following up on the actions adopted by local development banks, PROPARCO would directly finance large-scale operations in which French industrialists could take part. The AFD was the only shareholder at the beginning. Its initial experiences, like those of the CDC, were disappointing.

89PROPARCO was turned into a finance corporation in 1990, its capital spread between the AFD (71%) and 39 other shareholders (French or international financial institutions and French industrial groups). Its assignment is to finance and back modern private enterprises that produce an added value with a direct impact on the sustainable development of the economies where it is authorised to undertake operations.

4.4.3. Partnerships

90After the adoption of the Lomé IV Convention in 1990 European establishments specialised in investment were, in 1992, grouped in the European Development Finance Institutions (EDFI) in order to reinforce their relations with each other and with EU institutions. EDFI groups 16 bilateral financial institutions, including Norfund (a Norwegian investment fund for developing countries) and the Swiss Investment Fund for Emerging Markets. At the end of 2008 total investments in its portfolio amounted to EUR 17 billion, including EUR 4 billion in ACP countries. The CDC and PROPARCO account for nearly a third of this total, itself comparable with that of the IFC.

91With an emphasis on operations that are economically viable, socially equitable, environmentally sustainable and financially profitable, these institutions have creatively devised a range of financial instruments (loans, equity funds, guarantees and financial engineering) in response to private investors’ needs in developing countries. They represent an original bilateral contribution to financing development.

5. Conclusion

92The two former rivals and imperial powers are now politically committed donors that have worked out a similar assistance policy from quite different histories, conceptions and administrative models. The effectiveness of these complex aid policies is hard to assess in a limited setting, even harder given the vast scope of French and British policies. It would be necessary to evaluate “friendly” relations, the destination of aid and trends in it, its substitution effects, the interactions between policies and so on. How can one enquire into the impact of all this on the countries receiving aid?

93How does one examine the effects of aid on recipient countries? This is also a tough question. Does the convergence of strategies towards international development objectives not imply that we should reason in terms of the degree not of causality but of contribution? The statistics are lacking for analysing over a long period how France and the UK have pursued, country by country, competing or complementary actions, or how they have jointly financed projects and cooperated in the field.

94From the viewpoint of its European partners, the UK sometimes seems more willing to follow the lead of the US. However, in the field of aid it has clearly taken the European path by pledging considerable funds. The UK, France and Germany agree on an ambitious aid policy. When one of the three wavers, the other two peers can exert their influence to bring “moral” pressure.

95In 2005 EU member States pledged to devote 0.7% of their gross national income (GNI) to ODA by 2015. But might the economic recession or political changes not undermine this commitment, especially in the case of France or the UK? Both these countries were major powers, a fact still reflected in their ambitious diplomacies; but the influence of new powers is growing. British and French aid, substantial and multiform, is important. But analysing it alone (the subject of this article) does not shed light on the much larger context. I have mentioned the investments made via PROPARCO and the CDC. But what about other forms of cooperation in culture, trade (e.g. the Sugar Protocol) or monetary matters (the franc zone)? How should one evaluate the (not very strong) tendency since 1990 to condition aid?

96Given the DAC’s regular evaluations, aid is the most visible aspect of a set of policies for entertaining friendly relations of various sorts in order to continue existing by switching from hegemony to cooperation, while trying to keep the initiative. Strategies are an important factor not only in the quest for legitimacy in the eyes of beneficiaries and tax-payers but also as a specific characteristic of the global dimension of aid policies. The arguments made for aid have to be convincing in several respects, not just in the countries receiving aid.

97The institutions related to aid policies have undergone so many changes that it is hard to make a compendious description. Presenting the major phases in this process leads to omitting the multilateral aspects of aid, which are complicated because they involve establishments and administrations in major countries. Multilateralism is more than the sum of the positions of individual countries. The influence of France and the UK can be attributed to both their experience in the field and the critical mass of aid that they distribute. International institutions have their own tropism and react retroactively to their members’ policies. Such dialectics need to come under close examination in the case of these two major donors. When placed in a multilateral framework, the colonial question became an international issue; this justified lightening the burden of aid on the former colonial powers. France has tended to increase the share of its aid given to multilateral projects. But will it be able to maintain its influence if it reduces too much the share of its bilateral aid? In turn, does the increasing proportion of the UK’s bilateral aid not risk reducing its range of influence?

98The same dilemma crops up when aid is “harmonised”. Such a policy reduces the proportion of aid stamped with a “national brand”. France emphasises operational excellence via the AFD, whereas the UK exercises strategic leadership via DFID. In this respect, the two models have different trajectories, but increasing exchanges between them will make their strategies more complementary. No doubt this is the price to pay for them to be effective and efficient together.

99As polls show, British and French public opinions support aid, but will they accept these changes? The history of aid brings to light major strategic questions for a better understanding of what is increasingly (and all for the better) resembling a global policy.

  • 6 The Conservative Party’s paper clearly stated this, and the two documents emphasised the quality of (...)

100I wrote this article during the summer of 2009 when, in France, the CICID (during its first meeting since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President in 2007) set the orientations for aid policy and, in the UK, DFID and the Conservative Party each released a strategic document on aid. These events tend towards a single interpretation, i.e. the organisation of aid is no longer a question in the UK,6 whereas it is now in the phase of fine-tuning in France since the appointment of a new staff in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both countries are pursuing a modernised form of aid. The UK has restated its strong commitment in favour of the Millennium Development Goals, which the Conservative Party also supports while regretting that donors seem to be losing interest in such aims. Is this a message addressed to the neighbour across the English Channel?

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1 In 2009 the remaining Cooperation services left the building on Rue Monsieur, which had been sold to Russian investors in 2008. This departure was itself a symbol.

2 Until 1997 young men, at the age of 18, were drafted for up to ten months, but they could choose to put in time as an overseas volunteer instead.

3 In his definition, in 1951, of the “colonial situation” Georges Balandier commented that it “appears as possessing, in an essential way, a character of unauthenticity; it constantly seeks to justify itself with a set of pseudo reasons”. Whether knowingly or not, the social sciences helped devise some of these “pseudo reasons”. Social studies were rather systematically invoked to legitimate a domination that liked to cloak itself in the fake clothes of rationality and modernity (Sibeud 2004).

4 The chronological markers I have used in this article cannot always reflect this profusion of reports, for each one has played a role that it is impossible to detail here.

5 Since 1946 France had had a system for stabilising the prices paid to farmers for certain agricultural products, a system intended to protect them from sudden fluctuations in the world market (Durand-Réville 1962).

6 The Conservative Party’s paper clearly stated this, and the two documents emphasised the quality of the British aid system. The Conservatives thus confirmed its place in the Cabinet.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: Official development assistance from France and the United Kingdom as a percentage of gross national income, 1960-2009
Caption Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.Notes: Diamonds: France; squares: UK.
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Title Table 1: France: Ministry of Cooperation inherits part of the Ministry for the Colonies
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Title Table 2: United Kingdom: merging of the Colonial and Foreign Offices
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Title Table 3: France: official aid system, 1957-95
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Title Table 4: United Kingdom: official aid system, 1961-2009
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Title Table 5: France: official aid system, 1995-2009
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Title Figure 2: Official development assistance from France and the United Kingdom, 1960-2009 (constant USD value)
Credits Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.
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Title Figure 3: Official development assistance from the United Kingdom, 1960-2009 (as a percentage of gross national income)
Credits Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.
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Title Figure 4 - Official development assistance from France, 1960-2009 (as a percentage of gross national income)
Credits Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.
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Title Figure 5: Share of bilateral and multilateral sources in official development assistance from the United Kingdom, 1960-2009
Credits Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.
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Title Figure 6: Share of bilateral and multilateral sources in official development assistance from France, 1960-2009
Credits Source: OECD Development Assistance Committee.
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Title Table 6: Distribution of aid by DFID (UK) in relation to the Millennium Development Goals
Credits Source: DFID, quoted by the DAC in its 2006 evaluation of aid.
File image/png, 22k
Title Table 7: Official development assistance from France and the United Kingdom, 2005 (in USD millions and percentages)
Credits Source: DAC (2009).
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Cite this article

Bibliographical reference

François Pacquement, How Development Assistance from France and the United Kingdom Has Evolved: Fifty Years on from DecolonisationInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement, 1 | 2010, 51-75.

Electronic reference

François Pacquement, How Development Assistance from France and the United Kingdom Has Evolved: Fifty Years on from DecolonisationInternational Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 1 | 2010, Online since 11 March 2010, connection on 28 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

François Pacquement

Policy Officer for History and Heritage at the Agence française de développement (AFD) in Paris.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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