5. The Office du Niger in Mali, 1960–2005

The fifth case study is concerned with an irrigation project and the large-scale transformation of extensively used areas into intensively worked fields to grow cotton and cereals. Similar to the “Virgin Lands Campaign”, the Office du Niger was a settlement project involving massive migration, and it represented an effort to turn sedentary groups into domestic settlers in order to “modernize” them. The project uses these similarities with its parallel project to study a region which was subject to developmental initiatives already during colonial times.

The Office du Niger was planned in Paris after World War One, and it was established in the Niger delta in 1932. The Office was supposed to produce cotton for the French textile industry by relying on tens of thousands of settlers forced to settle in the delta (on the forced character of cotton production see Zimmerman 2010). Technical difficulties, inadequate yields, the turn to rice, and remigration meant that the high hopes associated with the Office were not realized. The same was true after the end of colonialism, when the government of Mail continued the Office as a parastatal organization. The World Bank declared the project unprofitable in the mid-1960s, and only a few donors provided funds, among them the Soviet Union. Against the background of the Basic Needs approach and the turn to rural development in the 1970s, the World Bank began funding the Office at the end of the decade. Until 2010 more than a billion dollars were invested into the reconstruction and expansion of water canals, new seeds, training, etc. World Bank publications present the Office as a positive example of the possibility to replicate the Green Revolution in Africa. Since the 1980s large parts of the Office have been privatized, cooperatives have been strengthened, money has been invested in public health and education, and the more than one-hundred thousand settlers have been encouraged to participate actively in the project. However, the success story propagated by the World Bank has to be read critically, seeing that many of the settlers remain poor, partially undernourished, and do not have secure land titles. In addition, the Office continues to depend on foreign aid.

Large-scale irrigation projects in the “global South” have attracted the interest of interdisciplinary historical studies (Becker 1994; Beinart/Hughes 2007, 130-147; Bernal 1997; Gilmartin 1994; Staples 2007, 53-62). With regard to the colonial period, the Office has been studied in detail, specifically concerning political and administrative as well as social aspects (Beusekom 1997, 2000, 2002; Diawara 2011; Dougnon 2007; Echenberg/Filipovich 1986; Filipovich 2001). There are no studies, however, covering the period after 1960s (with the exception of Schreyger 1984). What is known is based on geographical and hydrological studies (Hassane 2002; Thom/Wells 1987) as well as on World Bank publications (Aw/Diemer 2005).

The Office du Niger can be considered a laboratory for agrarian development doctrines over time. All of the dominant doctrines were tried out here: Modernization and dual economy models in the 1950s and 1960s, integrated rural development in the 1970s, market liberalization and structural adjustment in the 1980s and 1990s, and participatory and poverty reduction strategies since the turn of the millennium. Similar to the case study on the World Bank, this project will follow the three analytical categories governance, transfer of knowledge, and production, labor, and social effects, and thereby present an integrated picture of development discourses and practices in a rural setting.

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