The Promise of the Plan: An Interview with Thomas Yarrow

This post builds on the research article “Remains of the Future: Rethinking the Space and Time of Ruination through the Volta Resettlement Project, Ghana,” which was published in the November 2017 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.


Atreyee Majumder: Amid the wide array of urban ethnography that exposes the messiness of development aspirations in postcolonial states, you offer an ethnographic palette rooted in the everyday registers of socialist and postsocialist urban governance. Can you say something about the specificity of these efforts (including plans) and their afterlives, which emerge out of socialist state structures and not market-driven growth initiatives?

Thomas Yarrow: Today the plan is remembered as synonymous with Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of an independent Ghana, whose vision of pan-Africanism involved an effort to envisage a socialist modernity that built on the cultural traditions of the continent. During the 1960s government and planning discourses engendered a set of ideas that are recognizable from other socialist contexts: belief in the central importance of large-scale infrastructure projects; the importance of industry and urbanism as transformative modes of modernity; and, relatedly, a view of architecture and planning as central instruments of social change.

More specifically, the self-similarity of the resettlement core houses that I describe in my article (they were all constructed to three basic templates) represented both an aspiration for egalitarianism and the means by which this aspiration would be realized. It is also important to recognize how the Volta Resettlement Project was complexly entangled in other ideological strands and institutional contexts, and so was, from the start, full of contradictions that state narratives attempted to flatten. While a symbol of postindependence autonomy, many of the experts and international consultants working on the project did not share Nkrumah’s vision; after all, it arose out of pre-independence processes of colonial planning and was heavily dependent on the external support of donors, including many who favored market-driven approaches.

Some of these complexities and contradictions have been noted elsewhere, perhaps most explicitly and influentially in James Holston’s (1989) account of the planning of Brasilia. What is, of specific interest about the Volta Resettlement Project is the fact that the coup of 1966 and the subsequent overthrow of Nkrumah meant that the project, in particular, and socialist aspirations, more generally, were abruptly abandoned before the contradictions to which I have alluded had fully unraveled. From my perspective the interesting thing is how socialism is figured today in these communities, not so much as nostalgia for that period as for the futures projected from it (cf. Boyer 2006). Resettlers do not wish for things to be as they were then, but they do wish for that version of a future that seemed open, full of potentials that now seem to be absent. The power of these planned futures is precisely in their lack of specificity or tangible referent. They can be imagined as many kinds of thing.

AM: You write about plans as having unleashed a life of “imaginative possibility,” and yet plans are not democratic but technocratic documents. How does this imaginative possibility move from the conditions of initial authorship and elite membership into the long-term social memory of citizens?

TY: After independence, the plans of the Volta Resettlement Project were central to the collective imagination of an independent state. They were never purely technocratic, I would argue, always claiming or implying a democratic impulse both in terms of origin (how they arose) and destination (what they might lead to): a response to the wishes of the people and a way of fulfilling those wishes. One version of this is articulated by Nkrumah, who framed the plan as an embodiment and reflection of the will of the people. Not everybody shared that vision, but historical accounts make it evident that the project, from the start, was interpolated in widespread discourses about the nation—what it was and what it might be. In other words the sense of possibility was widespread, even if it was actualized in a range of ways. The contexts in which that imaginative possibility of plans is now recovered, reanimated, and reinterpreted are ones in which futures now seem blocked. Nostalgic invocations of the plan by no means restricted to those who were alive in the 1960s: they reflect and refract myriad contemporary forms of disenchantment, as well as hopes that remain even in the face of despair.


AM: Sovereign development efforts within the paradigms of communism, socialism, or capitalism are scripts of utopia. What you show in your article is the birth of a longer social history of unbuilt dams, technocratic blueprints, and acts of developmental foresight that have moved into the everyday imaginaries of the people who inhabit them, however ambivalently. Could you say more about the social proliferation of state-authored utopias?

TY: I would suggest that the Volta Resettlement Project is characterized by a willing habitation of the promise of the plan, which in turn relates to an unwilling habitation of the unfulfilled actuality. People fabricate viable lives here but generally aspire to improve or leave these townships, which are seen as spaces of highly constrained possibility. I have already noted that the contemporary sense of the promise of these plans relates to the fact that they were never fully realized. The utopianism is thus both retrospective and prospective; as a kind of nostalgia that arises from a sense of what is wrong with the present, it takes many forms as projections from multiple diagnoses of what is wrong. This, too, produces a kind of despair, the sense of a gap that appears unbridgable between how things might have been and how things are. Yet it is also projected forward as a hope for what still might be. Here, hope and despair are mutually implicated as differential assessments of the present in relation to these futures.

The continuing appeal of this particular plan relates to disenchantment with subsequent state discourses, not only of corruption but also of other failures and broken promises. It is the manifest absence of development, whether infrastructural, social, or economic, that makes these earlier utopianisms so powerful. Moreover, it is the recalling of those visions that in turn highlights deficiencies in the present; people see buildings and lives through these present absences of what they palpably are not. Inhabitants of the Volta Resettlement Project feel these tensions acutely as the vanguard of those aspirations, now living in conditions that so manifestly lack the social and economic development that was promised.

It is certainly the case that contemporary development discourses are associated with different kinds of futures than these mid-century plans anticipated: for instance, in seeing the market as more central, in a focus on anticorruption measures, and in a less infrastructural, more bottom-up or participatory vision. The register of these narratives is not only differently utopian but, I would argue, less utopian: they produce and respond to a public expectation of improvement and development, but generally with a more circumscribed and circumspect vision of what can be achieved, specifically by the state.


AM: You discuss Reinhart Koselleck’s (2004) Futures Past in connection with your material. At one point, you say that the predictable opposition between nonmodern and modern temporalities does not work in the Ghanaian case, because these are people who very much want to inhabit the disciplined logic of linear time. Can I then invite you to comment on the usual reading of coevalness, à la Johannes Fabian (1982), with which anthropologists often critique the analytic category of time?

TY: Fabian persuasively argued that modern time becomes a way of othering: assigning non-Western cultures to a time outside our (Western) own and rendering that difference as a deficit through qualities of tradition, timelessness, and primitivity.

Inspired, in part, by Fabian’s work, the concept of multiple modernities has been a way of extending modern time to those people who might have been seen to lack it and arguing that modernity is not a singular kind of thing. The problem, to my mind, is that this elides the ethnographically constitutive sense in which many people, in this case resettlers, see their lives precisely as an absence of modernity (e.g., Ferguson 1999; Larkin 2004). My account tries to trace the contours of these absences: how, why, and from what perspectives people see themselves as out of time; how and why a sense of anachronism, a lack of coevalness is felt. I am interested in the ways that these ideas of linear and progressive time involve a kind of self-othering, the sense of occupying a different time and space and the related ideas of temporal stasis, of being behind or wanting to catch up.


AM: I have a bit of a quibble with your invocation of ruin and ruination. I understand ruin as the decaying form and temporal obfuscation of an entity that had initially come to fruition from a blueprint. Thus, the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramids were built; they achieved the status of fruition at one time. Does your description of the unbuilt dam not require a slightly distinct theorization? To my understanding, these structures never came to fruition from their initial birth as socialist blueprint.

TY: I understand the objection, but for me the point is to extend the category of ruination to a context that helps to resituate and rethink some of the assumptions that frame it. I think we need a more inclusive theorization of ruination, interrogating some of the assumptions that have tended to preclude attention to the various forms it can take. So I would want to question some of the assumptions in your question: that buildings are ever really present in the terms you describe, or that ruination is necessarily an absence of this presence.

The sense of decay is not—or not only—an understanding of what existed and has now gone. It is rather an understanding of infrastructures—or, still more generally, lives, perceived as decayed versions of what they might have been in different, better circumstances.

My ethnographic focus is on a sense of decay and degeneration, and the ways in which this implicates and arises through interactions with the material world. In this case the project ceased before the plan was finished, so many elements remain uncompleted. Some of the infrastructure that was built has since decayed, and in that sense one could highlight the absences that this presences in line with much recent work on ruination. But the broader point is to try to highlight the myriad ways in which presence and absence are articulated in relation to these remains. The sense of decay is not—or not only—an understanding of what existed and has now gone. It is rather an understanding of infrastructures—or, still more generally, lives, perceived as decayed versions of what they might have been in different, better circumstances. It might be useful to characterize this as a kind of inverse or anticipatory ruination (see Nielsen 2011). The sense of material decay emerges relative to a future projected from the past, rather than relative to the memory of that past.


AM: You devote quite a bit of space to domestic infrastructure and the structure of urban expectations that it generates. Is there a point to be drawn out here about modular domestic design as state-making or unmaking, perhaps in the vein of Marc Augé’s (1995) formulation of airport interiors as nonplaces? Does your ethnographic eye extend to logics of urban design in Ghana?

TY: Other scholars (e.g., Bernal 1997; Bonneuil 2000) have described the ways in which modernist infrastructural projects involved a specific kind of governmentality. Regularization and systematization were linked to the expansion of the state into rural communities from which it had previously been absent. Inspired by the work of Michel de Certeau (as elaborated by Holston and others) it might be tempting to see settlers’ responses as a tactics of resistance: more or less deliberate efforts to undo, subvert, or refigure the plan through everyday acts of inhabitation and renovation. I would want to resist this interpretation. In a context where infrastructure was only ever partially realized and the state was never strongly established, the general desire is for a larger state and more planning. In Augé’s terms, the state never was very successful at establishing these spaces as part of a global aesthetics of planning. It is this absence that many now lament, signifying as it does their exclusion at multiple scales and registers—not only from a global modernity but also from the state itself.

Recent work on urban Africa celebrates informality as a functional sociality that offers a viable alternative to modern ideals of urban life (Mbembe and Nuttall 2004; Simone 2004). This literature offers an important counterpoint to the normativity of urban planning and social theory. However, its critical orientation toward modern urban forms has tended to engender a celebratory, if not romantic, orientation to practices that subvert this logic. While the lack of modernization is understood to require various forms of adaptation, resettlers see these as both symptom and cause of nonconvergence with a progressive ideal of modernist planning. To my mind, recent moves to conceptualize informality as a viable alternative to Western urban forms and to critique the simplifications of high-modern planning (e.g., Scott 1998) misrecognize or overlook the animating force of Western modernity as orienting elements of these practices.


Augé, Marc. 1995. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. New York: Verso. Originally published in 1992.

Bernal, Victoria. 1997. “Colonial Moral Economy and the Discipline of Development: The Gezira Scheme and ‘Modern’ Sudan.” Cultural Anthropology 12, no. 4: 447–79.

Bonneuil, Christophe. 2000. “Development as Experiment: Science and State Building in Late Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, 1930–1970.” Osiris 15, no. 1: 258–81.

Boyer, Dominic. 2006. “Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany.” Public Culture 18, no: 2: 361–81.

Fabian, Johannes. 1982. Time and The Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ferguson, James. 1999. Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life in the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Holston, James. 1989. The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Koselleck, Reinhart. 2004. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Translated by Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia University Press.

Larkin, Brian. 2004. “Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy.” Public Culture 16, no. 2: 289–314.

Mbembe, Achille, and Sarah Nuttall. 2004. “Writing the World from an African Metropolis.” Public Culture 16, no. 3: 347–72.

Nielsen, Morten. 2011. “Inverse Governmentality: The Paradoxical Production of Periurban Planning in Maputo, Mozambique.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 31, no. 4: 329–58.

Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Simone AbdouMaliq. 2004. “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg.” Public Culture 16, no. 3: 407–429.