Much better than earlier’: dam-building in Uganda and understanding development through the past

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Nayler, Joanna
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This article illustrates that development discourses are historically constructed and contingent, demonstrating the value of adopting a discursive and historical approach to development projects. It juxtaposes recent and late-colonial Ugandan dam-building, using Owen Falls and Bujagali dams respectively, to bring the past and present into conversation. Focusing on history as the representation of past events shows how actors’ articulation of development tropes is intimately linked with historical associations and claims, and how actors use recent history to advance contemporary aims while discussing development. For example, critiques of contemporary situations are strengthened through unfavourable comparison with a romanticised past, and development planners justify their actions by presenting development projects as different from previous interventions. This historical lens identifies findings that an approach focused on the present might miss, including the ways the late-colonial government emphasized the small-scale nature of its projects and positive remembrances of Owen Falls in contemporary Uganda (in spite of the project not achieving its objectives); large-scale development projects should therefore not only be analysed from the perspective of their ostensible failure. This approach also illustrates how ideas of development are articulated differently in different historical contexts, including more individualized and divergent applications in the contemporary period.
Dams, development, Uganda, Africa, history, high modernism
Nayler, Joanna. ''Much Better than Earlier': Dam-Building in Uganda and Understanding Development through the Past', Journal of Eastern African Studies, vol. 15/no. 3, (2021), pp. 400-420.