Dammed if you do
At a recent postgraduate conference on development, I took part in a training and assimilation exercise based on the imaginary country of 'Vinzoria', supposedly a post-conflict state the size of Kenya. The Vinzorian government had invited the major international bilateral and non-governmental organisations to help rebuild the country. Each group at the conference was allotted the role of a different organisation.
I was made head of the British Department for International Development (DfID) group. Our main aims were to think of practical strategies that could put an economically backward country on the road to recovery. We were given unlimited resources to use to achieve our goals.
Our group decided to build a dam. A dam would bring employment to the region, and a regular supply of water for domestic use and irrigation that was not subject to seasonal changes. Dams could also be used to generate electricity, which would power homes and the new industries.
But when we discussed our proposals with other groups, the dam was greeted with horror and condemnation by staff and students. It seemed that, irrespective of the context or the possible benefits, dams were bad. We decided to back down on the issue because of the incredible hostility - and because we knew that that the DfID itself is reluctant to support the building of dams today. The hostility to such grand development projects extends far beyond the boundaries of the Lodge in Windsor where we were staying.
My group then decided to lower its sights and build a well. But this was also controversial. Our presentation was attacked, because we had just decided to build a well without considering the destructive consequences which such a resource could bring. We were told that we should 'never assume anything' about the benefits of a well.
One member of another group explained how the building of wells could be detrimental. For example, a United Nations development organisation planning several wells in Egypt had built them in inappropriate places, such as outside a public bar. Women, the main water collectors, were apparently intimidated by this, especially as their wet, clingy clothes elicited sexual comments from the men in the bar.
Far from seeing this as an argument against wells, I see it as an argument for running water in people's homes. But even the suggestion of taps in the home caused controversy at the conference, on the grounds that a domestic supply of water can reduce social contact between women who are used to walking miles to rivers.
In the final presentation of our plans to the other groups, we had to lower our horizons dramatically about the kind of development projects that could be implemented in Vinzoria. The group that won the most support was the one that did not have a plan at all. All they had was a highly complex system of consultations with everybody.
Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999