BLACKOUTS AND PROGRESS: Privatization, Infrastructure, and a Developmentalist State in Jimma, Ethiopia



The recent completion of a hydropower dam near Jimma, Ethiopia coincided with rolling blackouts throughout the country and accusations of corruption and mismanagement being directed toward the Ethiopian government and the Italian company that constructed the dam. The case appears to be one more example of an African state failing to provide its citizens with basic public services in a context of neoliberal economic restructuring. Recent road construction and urban renewal projects in Jimma have also been contracted out to private companies and have led to displaced families and disruptions of day-to-day life. Jimma residents, however, have generally met these projects with statements of approval and appreciation for the power of the Ethiopian state to bring progress. In this article, I examine contrasting narratives concerning privatized infrastructural development projects. I argue that although the provision of basic services is increasingly contracted out to private companies, the perceived presence of the Ethiopian state has expanded in new and surprising ways. Contrasting perceptions of dams and road construction are based in values concerning relations of power and exchange. In this case, the particular relationship between the privatization of infrastructure and perceptions of the state demonstrates the limits of neoliberalism as an analytical category. I argue that in recent anthropological scholarship a reliance on neoliberalism as a category of analysis obscures more than it reveals, and I call for more attention to correlations between specific techniques of governance and relations of power. [development, infrastructure, neoliberalism, patron–client relations, progress]