Continuity or Change in the Infrastructure Turn? Reform of the Technicians’ Realm in a World Bank Dam


Development in Africa is undergoing an infrastructure turn, no more so than in resurgent dam building. But how are new projects planned and constructed? Are we seeing the repetition of much maligned practices that underestimated economic, environmental and social costs, or have past critiques changed infrastructure building in the twenty-first century? Using the concept of the technician’s realm that describes short-sighted and expert-centric twentieth century practices of dam building, this article analyses the incorporation of reformist ideas about knowledge production, mitigation and compensation. It uses a detailed case study of the Rusumo Dam, and examines the decision-making processes of the World Bank and a new dam-building organisation, Nelsap. Significantly, this case involved a marked design revision to reduce impact, but also top–down and depoliticising impact assessment and policymaking. It therefore demonstrates nuanced change in the infrastructure turn, the incorporation of reform and continued relevance of past critiques.


Le développement en Afrique connaît actuellement un changement au niveau des infrastructures, et cela est particulièrement visible dans une activité qui connaît actuellement un renouveau : la construction de barrages. Mais comment les nouveaux projets sont-ils planifiés et construits? Assistons-nous à la répétition de pratiques fortement décriées qui sous-estiment les coûts économiques, environnementaux et sociaux, ou bien les critiques antérieures ont-elles changé les pratiques du secteur du bâtiment au 21ème siècle? Cet article utilise le concept de la sphère du technicien, qui décrit les pratiques du 20è siècle en construction de barrages, pratiques à courte vue et centrées sur les experts, pour analyser l’inclusion d’idées réformistes sur la production de connaissances, l’atténuation et la compensation. Il utilise une étude de cas détaillée du barrage de Rusumo et étudie les processus de prise de décision de la Banque mondiale et d’une nouvelle organisation de construction de barrages, Nelsap. Fait important, ce cas impliquait une modification considérable du design pour réduire l’impact, et il a également fallu dépolitiser l’analyse d’impact et de prise de décision. Ceci démontre ainsi un changement nuancé dans la tournure de l’infrastructure, la prise en compte de la réforme et le fait que les critiques antérieures continuent t’être pertinentes.

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Fig. 1

Source Rex et al. (2014, p. 3)

Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Source Artelia (2013)

Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6


  1. 1.

    Agriculture (1979), engineering-feasibility (1987–1992) and environmental impacts (1993).

  2. 2.

    Interviewee 1.

  3. 3.

    Interviewee 1.

  4. 4.

    Interviewee 1.

  5. 5.

    On the Paraguay–Brasil and D.R. Congo–Rwanda borders, respectively.

  6. 6.

    Interviewee 5.

  7. 7.

    Interviewee 1.

  8. 8.

    Interviewees 1, 2.

  9. 9.

    Interviewee 5. Echoed by interviewees 1, 2.

  10. 10.

    Interviewee 5.

  11. 11.

    Interviewee 1.

  12. 12.

    Paraphrased Interviewee 11.

  13. 13.

    Paraphrased Interviewees 11, 15.

  14. 14.

    Interviewee 16.

  15. 15.

    Interviewee 10.

  16. 16.

    Reflecting policies for increased East Africa Community electricity trade (e.g. EAC 2018 Sustainability Policy).

  17. 17.

    According to interviewees 12,13,14.

  18. 18.

    Interviewees 11, 15.

  19. 19.

    Interviewee 9.

  20. 20.

    As Zambia’s Kariba demonstrates (Scudder 2012).

  21. 21.

    Interview 14.

  22. 22.


  23. 23.


  24. 24.


  25. 25.

    In contrast to interviewees 1,2,3,4, 5, 6,7 were 14Tz, 26Tz and 27Tz. Local interviewees appeared unaware of supposed financial support; This finding echoes other Bank projects like Nam Theun II (Goldman 2005).

  26. 26.

    Initially calculated at 135, with revisions demonstrating 15,000 were in-fact affected (McCully 2001).

  27. 27.


  28. 28.

    Interviewees 1,2,3,4, 5, 6, 7; 10Tz, 12Tz, 13Tz.

  29. 29.

    Interviewees 1,2,3,4, 5, 6, 7; Artelia (2013a).

  30. 30.

    26Tz, 27Tz.

  31. 31.

    Paraphrased interviewee 14Tz.


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I acknowledge the support and important feedback of my supervisor Dr Ricardo Soares de Olivera. This paper has also been greatly improved from the comments of Dr Daniel Paget, Dr Ivan Cuesta Fernandez, Brita Bergland and Dr Julian Kirchherr. I also thank the reviewers whose constructive and in-depth comments greatly improved the article. The research was funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council (Grant No. ES/J500112/1), through a 3+ Doctoral Scholarship. Interviews and invaluable research assistance were provided by Isack Asfao and Valens Rutazihana.

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Appendix: Interviews

Appendix: Interviews

Local Level Interviews Cited


Quoted Rusumo Dam Planners


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Dye, B.J. Continuity or Change in the Infrastructure Turn? Reform of the Technicians’ Realm in a World Bank Dam. Eur J Dev Res 32, 627–651 (2020).

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  • Dam resurgence
  • World Bank
  • Reform
  • Development
  • Infrastructure
  • Impact assessment
  • Rusumo Falls Dam
  • Nelsap
  • Hydro power