FutureDAMS has published a new working paper by Barnaby Dye: Dam building by the illiberal modernisers: ideology and changing rationales in Rwanda and Tanzania.


Dams have a prominent historical status, imagined through high-modernist ideology as the premier infrastructure project, delivering electricity, irrigation and the spectacle of development. However, the decade from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s saw few dams constructed and major funders such as the World Bank pull out. Dams have returned over the past decade, particularly in authoritarian countries in Africa. This sparks questions about the contemporary state of politics and development ideology.

This article, using case studies from Rwanda and Tanzania, asks whether high-modernist ideology has returned and justifies the dam resurgence. The article finds, however, that high modernism now plays an indirect role. It underpins broader development-focused state building missions that are central to Rwanda and Tanzania and also rationalises pyramidal, expert-centric decision making and depoliticised ideas imbuing electricity itself with development. Dams are therefore built for their hydropower, rather than for their modernising spectacle; moreover, both countries demonstrate sustainable development discourse and critiques of dams’ efficacy. The article concludes that this suggests a more nuanced modernising ideology and somewhat responsive authoritarian states.

The article is based on my thesis involving elite-level interviews and ground-level fieldwork with members of each dam’s local community.


Download the working paper.


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