2022 marks 30 years since Adam Smith International was founded. A huge milestone.
I’ve served the company for nearly half its history and it’s a great honour and privilege, both personally and professionally, to now lead ASI and our incredible people – from London, Nairobi, Delhi, Washington DC and Canberra, to Peshawar, Port Moresby, Mogadishu, Baghdad, and Bamako – into the future.
As we look forward to a fourth decade of operations and consider the challenges and opportunities the world faces in the 2020s, it’s worth looking back in the rear-view mirror to take some time to reflect on and celebrate the ASI journey.
The Journey Begins
The ASI journey began with two epoch-defining geopolitical and economic events: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Washington Consensus on global and macro-economic policies. These events created demand for the sorts of ‘expertise and best practice’ driven policy advice that had been instrumental in the reframing of the relationship between the state and the economy in liberal western democracies such as the UK and USA. The International Division of the Adam Smith Institute was founded in response to this demand, and to apply technical approaches to economic and governance reform in the countries of the Eastern Bloc and the developing world.
In 1992, Adam Smith International spun out of the Institute and was established as an independent advisory firm led by Peter Young, who, as a student politician, had gained a certain cachet for his arrest in Poland during the 1980s for working with the Polish democratic opposition. Those days, ASI ran out of Peter’s front room in Camberwell in London, but soon moved to offices on Albert Embankment.
Aid in the 1990s
In the early 1990s the UK’s Overseas Development Agency was a relative backwater – the establishment of a stand-alone Department for International Development with a seat in the Cabinet, were some years in the future. Much of our work then, funded by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, involved working with newly enfranchised democratic governments in Eastern Europe (Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Ukraine and the Russian Federation) to develop their policy agendas. This established ASI’s reputation for successfully engaging with the political as well as technical dimensions of reforms.
In the expanding world of international aid, the pendulum began to gradually swing away from agriculture extension and infrastructure towards support for economic reform as the neo-liberal economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan began to trickle into development work through bilateral and multilateral agencies. ASI began to provide advisory services on components of large IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes in several countries across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Through this period, programmes began to grow in ambition, size, complexity and duration against a backdrop of a rapidly-growing aid budget in the UK and other large donors. In response, the emphasis of our work began to shift from policy advice assistance to delivery – i.e. getting stuff done.
Liberal Intervention & State-Building
In 2001 geopolitics intervened again: 9/11 shook the world and changed ASI’s trajectory. Our reputation for being nimble and creative dates back to this period: an ASI team, having journeyed over Afghanistan’s Khyber Pass to Kabul while fighting continued, was on the ground in early 2002 and played a central role in designing some of the UK’s innovative and successful early governmental reform programmes. It was in Kabul that I first met ASI staff while serving as a World Bank official. ASI programmes were renowned for hiring high-quality advisers and for delivering impact, and ASI staff were passionate and highly result-oriented – a trait that is still core to ASI today.
In some ways, this period of ASI’s history was ‘expeditionary’ in its nature and scale, as we deployed at short notice and often at considerable scale in conflict-affected countries. This was exciting work, but it came at a cost: tragically, we lost close friends, colleagues and counterparts to hostile action in Afghanistan and later Iraq.
But we’re proud of our achievements through these years. It’s a testament to the quality of that work that one of the very few areas of British endeavour praised by the Iraq Inquiry was the ‘centre of government’ institutions we helped establish. We’re proud too of our efforts to establish a tax administration in Afghanistan that raised billions of dollars in tax revenue for the Afghan government. And while we look on with dismay at the situation in Afghanistan today, we are incredibly proud of the work we did on girl’s education there and the support our programmes provided to a generation of school children.
Since 2012, we have grown into a global employee-owned advisory business that strengthens and stabilises economies and societies around the world. ASI now has presence in over 100 countries with seven international hubs (London, Sydney, Nairobi, Islamabad, Sydney, Amsterdam and Washington DC) as well as dozens of project offices across the globe. Our projects cover a wide range of areas including stabilisation, humanitarian response, climate change, infrastructure, market systems development, mining, governance and public financial management.
No Strangers to Controversy
ASI has won plaudits and honours for our work around the world, but we’re no strangers to controversy either. We fully recognise that aid, conditionalities, and the external support for the reform of sovereign nations are, at times, intensely controversial. For instance, our work on India’s and Tanzania’s privatisation programmes, and support for Palestine’s political negotiations with Israel made headlines early on.
In more recent years, our assistance to the moderate opposition in Syria has been the target of misinformation and disinformation from Kremlin-supported media outlets. In the UK, our rapid growth and relatively high profile meant we were often targeted by those opposed to UK’s aid spending within government and the media. Needless to say, our work for some of the world’s most scrutinised agencies in some of the world’s most contested spaces continues to keep my colleagues and, in particular, our press team busy.
Today, our mission is to transform lives by making economies stronger, societies more stable, and governments more effective. Our tagline is “Think. Deliver. Transform” – and it captures our promise to think creatively about complex problems, deliver change through local and global partnerships, and transform lives through the impact of our work.
Over the years, we have continued to deliver exceptional projects that deliver real impact and address some of the toughest development challenges around the world. Our efforts supporting girls’ education in Pakistan, electrification in Nigeria, spearheading market systems development in the Solomon Islands, and stabilisation in Somalia are flagship programmes that we are incredibly proud of. By helping governments deliver, we have transformed lives at scale in both fragile and conflict affected states as well as in emerging economies across the globe.
We have had high highs, and low lows. But I would like to think that we have learnt from every experience we have had and have grown into a mature business that has much to look forward to as we step into our fourth decade.
There is no doubt that we managed to grow primarily because of our people. We have earned a reputation for hiring and nurturing top-calibre people in our sector, who are, by far, our most valuable asset. There have been many challenges along the way that needed courage, passion and perseverance. But we could have not made it this far without the support and trust of our staff, associates, and clients who have shared our passion to take on big challenges and achieve lasting results and it is them that I would like to thank on this occasion. Our people have helped us read the trends in geopolitics and in international aid, and are the reason we have continued to be relevant three decades since we started out.
To our staff: It is an honour to work with such talented, dedicated, and passionate people every day. ASI’s growth and success has been linked to your commitment to putting our clients’ needs first, whether aid agencies or developing countries’ governments, businesses, civil society and people we serve. The ASI alumni are among the strongest allies we have, and I owe you all a huge debt of gratitude for building ASI.
To our associates: As an organisation that has run for 30 years, we understand the importance of establishing a collaborative partnership that adds significant value to ASI. Thank you for your dedication, deep expertise, and skills in helping us serve governments, international organisations, companies, and foundations around the world.
To our clients and partners: Thank you for trusting in us for all these years. It is an honour to be asked to deliver such interesting projects around the globe and we will endeavour to design and deliver your projects at ever higher standards and ever greater impact every year.
As I look at our balanced portfolio serving multiple clients, our global spread, and our broad technical offer, I sometimes like to muse that ASI’s future will be driven less by wild swings in geopolitics or by the flavour of the day when it comes to aid policy and programming. But there’s a full-scale war going on between major sovereign states in mainland Europe. The worst impacts of the global slowdown are yet to be felt, there is the very real prospect of famine following hard on the heels of pandemic in many of the countries in which we work, and the urgency of addressing climate change and biodiversity loss is being undermined by challenges of energy security and inflation. Gains made in development over several decades of painstaking work stand to be reversed.
I am convinced that there’s never been a greater need to deploy experts who can help to prepare governments to meet the challenges of our time, and to deliver emergency relief and reconstruction where they can’t. I commit to all our friends and colleagues that ASI will remain at the centre of the action, remaining focused on getting stuff done in the most challenging circumstances through sustainable impact, effective collaboration, and lasting partnerships.
To mark the occasion, we have put together an anniversary microsite – this page will grow throughout the year of celebration, so make sure to bookmark it and come back for future updates.
CEO, Adam Smith International