This post builds on the research article “Blackouts and Progress: Privatization, Infrastructure, and a Developmentalist State in Jimma, Ethiopia,” which was published in the February 2012 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Jessica Lockrem: How did you become interested in infrastructure projects in Jimma, Ethiopia?
Daniel Mains: My interest in infrastructure grew out of my dissertation research. I studied urban youth and unemployment in Jimma between 2003 and 2005. At that time a key source of employment, particularly for young men but also for young women, was the Gibe I project – the hydroelectric dam constructed near Jimma that I describe in the article. When I returned to Jimma in 2008 I learned that many of the young men I knew who had been unemployed for a number of years had found work at Gibe II or on road construction projects. So, I was initially primarily interested in the importance of infrastructural development for creating employment opportunities. It was not until I returned to Jimma again in 2009, and I observed the rolling blackouts and the implications of urban renewal in the city, that I really began to think about infrastructure in a more complicated way.
In 2009 I was actually working on a collaborative project related to youth aspirations and mental health, but I found my conversations consistently turning to infrastructure, ideas about progress and the future, and the role of the Ethiopian state in promoting desirable economic development.
It is no coincidence that when I returned to the US in the fall of 2009 I taught Brian Larkin’s excellent book, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria, in a seminar course at Colby College. Teaching Larkin’s book helped me think through the research I conducted in Jimma, and influenced some of the analytical directions I took during the process of writing.
JL: You argue that the people of Jimma are more supportive of road projects as compared to the dam projects, in part, because they have invested financially and emotionally in the road projects. Did members of the government consciously attempt to create public support for these projects (through hosting fund drives for the road projects and creating new jobs to work on the roads)? Or was this mass public support an unexpected outcome?
DM: In general the government seeks to create public support for most projects that are aimed at development. Much of the government’s legitimacy depends on its ability to provide economic development. Programming on the state run television station (the only station that is available free of charge) is often devoted to describing the positive impacts of different development schemes. The parade of construction vehicles I describe in my article is another example of this. However, I am uncertain if the government consciously sought to generate support by encouraging people to invest financially and emotionally in road projects. It seems quite likely that this was an unexpected outcome.
Interestingly, the Ethiopian government announced in 2011 its plans for the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.” This is a series of dams on the Blue Nile River. The estimated cost for the project is over $5 billion. The government has been unable to attract foreign funding and is selling bonds to fund the project, both in Ethiopia and to the Ethiopian diaspora. The music videos included on this page show images of the proposed dam and people purchasing bonds. The project appears to have attracted some public support as a symbol of the right of Ethiopia to control the Blue Nile River, primarily in opposition to Egypt’s claims on the water. I am eager to explore reactions to the project further on my next trip to Jimma.
JL: You make a compelling argument that an “analyses of correlations and patterns among specific practices” is more productive than using neoliberalism as a category of analysis. Do you see any value in continuing to utilize the term neoliberalism or should scholars abandon it altogether for more nuanced descriptions and analyses?
DM: This is a difficult question, and one that I continue to struggle with. I think that exploring the utility of the various analytical categories that anthropologists use is an important theoretical project. In the final endnote in my article I invoke the concept of “language games”, which is borrowed (loosely in my case) from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. My sense is that in the “language games” that cultural anthropologists play neoliberalism increasingly obscures more than it reveals. In other words, because it refers to so many different things, neoliberalism often muddles the types of discussions that anthropologists participate in.
I certainly would not argue that scholars should abandon the term altogether. I believe that it may continue to have utility in certain types of language games. For example, neoliberalism is often used to refer to a large number of connected processes that are related to exploitation and inequality. To the extent that the term neoliberalism supports activism and motivates people to oppose injustice, I believe it is very useful in these language games. It may be the case that more specific terms are necessary in these types of language games as well - I am thinking of J.K. Gibson-Graham’s analyses of capitalism here, neoliberalism makes a very useful enemy but activism may be undermined when neoliberalism is given too much determinative force. In other words, the continued use of neoliberalism depends on the context in which it is used and the goals that one seeks to accomplish.
JL: Will you continue to work on this topic and with this research material? What new directions do you see this project taking?
DM: This project has really just begun, and there are a number of areas I would like to explore further. One is historical, I am interested in the history of infrastructure in Ethiopia and examining continuity and changes in public reactions to large scale projects. I am also eager to conduct long-term ethnographic research concerning infrastructural development. Ideally, in addition to continuing my investigation of public perceptions of infrastructural development, long-term research would allow me to work with state officials, engineers and workers on infrastructure projects.
Building off arguments I develop in this article I hope to explore conceptions of the public good. How is infrastructural development interrelated with redistribution of resources? Who has the right to benefit from public resources and infrastructure? What role do people feel the state should play in this process? Additionally, I hope to use infrastructure as a lens to better understand how issues of national identity and perceptions of the state vary with ethnicity.
Questions for Classroom Discussion
1. Compare and contrast the dam and road projects in Jimma. Who is funding them? Who is building them? How have they been successful and/or disruptive? How do residents perceive them?
2. Despite the many similarities between the dam projects and road projects, why do the people of Jimma critique the dam projects yet speak about the road projects as progress?
3. How does Mains’ discussion of relations of power in Ethiopia relate to his discussion of the people’s perceptions of infrastructure projects?
4. How does road construction in Jimma create a relationship between citizens, the state, and the road project?
5. According to scholars cited by Mains, what is neoliberalism? Why, according to Mains, is neoliberalism no longer useful as a category of analysis? Do you agree?
Ferguson, James. 2010. "The Uses of Neoliberalism." Antipode 41(supp. 1): 166–184.
Ghosh, Kaushik. 2006. "Between Global Flows and Local Dams: Indigenousness, Locality, and the Transnational Sphere in Jharkhand, India." Cultural Anthropology 21(4): 501–534.
Kanna, Ahmed. 2010. "Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging 'City-Corporation.'”Cultural Anthropology 25(1): 100–129.
Larkin, Brian. 2008. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Piot, Charles. 2010. Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rudnyckyj, Daromir. 2009. "Spiritual Economies: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia." Cultural Anthropology 24(1): 104–141.
Schwegler, Tara. 2008. "Take It From the Top (Down)? Rethinking Neoliberalism and Political Hierarchy in Mexico." American Ethnologist 35(4): 682–700.