SOAS University of London

Centre of South East Asian Studies

The Politics and Economics of Britain's Foreign Aid: The Pergau Dam Affair (Routledge)

Book cover: The Politics and Economics of Britain's Foreign Aid: The Pergau Dam Affair
Sir Tim Lankester

Date: 26 February 2013Time: 5:45 PM

Finishes: 26 February 2013Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B102

Type of Event: Seminar

A reception will follow the seminar discussion.


The funding of the Pergau hydroelectric project in Malaysia in the early 1990s  was the most controversial episode in the history of British aid. It created a political storm in Britain and Malaysia, and it had a lasting impact on subsequent aid policies. The funding was linked to a highly irregular undertaking to provide aid as part of a major arms deal; the economic case for the project was so unsatisfactory that Sir Tim (who was Permanent Secretary of the Overseas Development Administration at the time) felt obliged to request a formal ministerial direction before authorising the expenditure; allegations of bribery in the British press led the Malaysian government temporarily to prohibit all public sector contracts with British firms; the government of the day was subject to fierce criticism in Parliament and in the media; and finally, when challenged in the courts, the aid was declared unlawful.

Drawing on government records and his own recollections, the book offers a critical assessment of the many issues involved – political, developmental, commercial, administrative and legal – both in Britain and in Malaysia. It also offers broader insights on governance, accountability and aid policy which are of relevance to this day.

Speaker Biography

Sir Tim Lankester started his career as an economist with the World Bank. He then spent over 20 years in the British civil service, which included working as Private Secretary (Economic Affairs) to Prime Ministers Callaghan and Thatcher and Executive Director on the boards of the World Bank and IMF. After leaving the civil service, he was Director of SOAS (1996-2001) and President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford (2001-2009)

Reviews - The Politics and Economics of Britain's Foreign Aid: The Pergau Dam Affair (Routledge)

‘This book is a very readable and fair-minded insider’s account of how government occasionally goes badly wrong. It shows how brave and strong-minded civil servants sometimes have to be to preserve integrity and decency in government.’ – Lord Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, former Minister for Overseas Development, UK

‘This book is an excellent example of something too little practised - a rigorous postevent evaluation. The Pergau dam was not the disaster many predicted. The real scandal was the improper confusion of defence and development objectives.’ – Lord Turnbull, former Cabinet Secretary, UK

‘Tim Lankester has provided a superb account of the most important turning point in UK aid policy. It is comprehensive, objective and authoritative, as only an insider’s reconstruction can be.’ – Professor John Toye, Oxford University, UK
‘A fascinating account of one of the shabbier episodes of the late Thatcher premiership....a case study in bad government which should be read by anyone seriously interested in the inner workings of Whitehall and Westminster.’ – Simon Jenkins, political journalist and author, UK

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