Friday, September 17, 2010

Floods, Dams, NGOs, and Africa

Nathalie Rothschild writes an impassioned article about NGOs and floods in Africa, claiming that aid organizations don't care about ending poverty in Africa because they oppose dams.

So why are NGOs like Survival International and International Rivers, which are spearheading the protest against Gibe III, not focusing their efforts on lobbying for investment in smart, ambitious and truly sustainable solutions to prevent the disastrous, and avoidable, effects of floods which every year displace, kill and plunge thousands into poverty? Why are they opposing large-scale development projects – like dams – that could contain the impact of both droughts and torrential downpours?

The answer is because their interest in preserving the lifestyles of ‘indigenous peoples’ really means that they do not want Ethiopia and other poor nations to modernise and have what we in the West have: industrialisation.

In the case of the anti-Gibe III campaign, NGOs say the dam will disrupt the lifestyles of tribes living along the Omo River, who depend on flood-retreat cultivation to (barely) sustain themselves. They say the dam will ‘end the [Omo] river’s natural flood cycle, on which the downstream communities have depended for growing food, fishing and grazing animals for thousands of years’. But this dependence effectively amounts to river-enslavement, with Ethiopians living at the mercy of nature rather than taming it.

The NGOs’ ostensibly humane impulse to protect ‘indigenous tribes’ in fact represents an abhorrent, paternalistic attitude to Africans, whom they treat in the same way that a zoologist might treat an exotic animal species. They regard these people as belonging to nature rather than to human society, as being part of a fragile ecosystem which should be preserved at the cost of social progress and material development.

This certainly raises very important issues. Rothschild is not all wrong--certainly there is an aspect of romanticization of pre-industrial lives in developed world-developing world relations. Aid organizations have a very mixed history in Africa that I have criticized before. As far as I can tell, they have nothing to stabilize Africa. And while it's not their job to do that per se, studies have suggested that aid organizations taking over governmental functions simply provides cover for governments to not govern. Moreover, there's the constant theme between Africa and Europe/US that whites must take care of brown people who can't do it for themselves--and you can read just about any Nick Kristof column for proof of that.

However, this topic is not nearly as simplistic as Rothschild makes it out to be. Let me just point out a few ways.

1. Protecting indigenous rights is important. States traditionally run roughshod over indigenous rights, whether in the U.S, and Australia in the late 19th century or India, Thailand, and Ethiopia today. If we value the complexity of cultures that the world has traditionally seen, don't we have a duty to learn from our past mistakes and lend assistance to indigenous peoples who are trying to maintain traditional lives and some autonomy from centralizing state authorities that openly plan to oppress them?

2. Floods do hurt people. But are dams a good solution? In the long-term, they may well not be. They will prevent the flood tomorrow. But to rely on dams for flood control in the long-term assumes a continued state and international investment in the project as well as ongoing technological development that will allow for the dam to remain safe, siltation to be removed, and the water to be used with some level of responsibility. There's been many dam projects that have ignored all of these issues, particularly in the developing world. Yes, we should be worried about protecting Ethiopians and everyone else from floods. But should that be our only concern? Dams do come down. Water will eventually overcome humans' desire to control it. And the damage when that happens will be catastrophic.

3. Long-term environmental damage. Dams provide humans much. But they also destroy ecosystems. In a world with disappearing ecosystems, shouldn't we give some thought to protecting the most valuable of them all--riparian ecosystems? Environmentalists always find themselves open to criticism for placing ecosystems in front of people.  But a healthy ecosystem also leads to a healthy human population. Rothschild talks about the need to "tame nature." Can we ever really tame nature in the long-run? Aren't we part of nature? This isn't some abstract theoretical question. It's fundamental for understanding our place in the world. At best, these dams will only temporarily stop floods--but how healthy will humans be during the lifetime of the dam.

4. Who do we listen to in Ethiopia? Does the government really represent people? If the Sudan wants to build a dam in Darfur in the name of protecting the majority of Sudanese from flood damage (I realize there's not enough water up there probably, but this is a hypothetical, so hang with me), are NGOs obligated to support this, even though the government doesn't represent the people of Darfur or Sudan at large? I find this dubious. Do the majority of Ethiopians want a dam? Possibly, were there to be a poll. Does the government want a dam in order to fund projects that would enhance their power? Absolutely. Does that mean aid organizations and western governments should rush to fund this? I don't think it follows that they should.

I'm not saying dams shouldn't be built in Ethiopia. There are arguments in their favor including providing electricity to an impoverished population, as Rothschild points out. But it's a lot more complicated and nuanced than she's presenting.