Last week I had the privilege of attending Dr. Mains’ presentation to the Honors College on development in Ethiopia. Dr. Mains, who I knew previously for his class on modernity, is an anthropologist who has focused his research on Ethiopia. This most recent project focuses on the impact of hydropower dam construction projects in the country in recent years. Basically, the Ethiopian government, in an effort to lift the population out of poverty and create jobs in the nation, has contracted an Italian company to build a series of incredibly massive dams to generate electricity for the country. This electricity will not only be used by Ethiopians, but the massive surpluses will also be sold to neighboring countries like Kenya.
While the project sounds great – renewable energy, investment in infrastructure, new jobs, etc.- the reality has been less sunny. First, Ethiopia’s contracting of an Italian company without negotiations raises some suspicion of corruption or pay offs. Second, such a massive project with such huge foreign involvement has provided somewhat minimal returns for Ethiopians. Dr. Mains provided anecdotal and quantitative data supporting the implementation of small scale projects employing natives to better support development. Third, international environmental organizations have raised environmental concerns with the dams.
One interesting aspect of the talk was the way Dr. Mains dissected the verbiage each party used to frame the dams. The Ethiopian government primarily focused on modernity, progress, technology, and “Renaissance”. The anti-dam NGO’s used words like “free-flowing,” “natural,” and “clean” to describe the river without the dam, implying the dam would stop all these presumably positive things.
From Dr. Mains’ experience, the citizens of Ethiopia are largely not experiencing either of these states. With the dams in place, many still experience rolling black outs and a large percentage of the population is still unemployed. The dams were built despite the environmental concerns from outsiders, and life is continuing on.
I really enjoyed the talk for the unbiased information Dr. Mains offered up. He tried his best not to take sides on which group was correct which I really appreciated. It is clear development in the global south is a massive undertaking and no one prescription will right all the wrongs of the world, but at least in Ethiopia today the data seems to point towards small-scale projects rather than massive cure-alls.