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Engineering change? The idea of ‘the scheme’ in African irrigation


  • Harrison, Elizabeth


Despite a growing recognition of the significance of farmer-led irrigation, externally engineered and induced schemes remain a popular model for irrigation development in sub-Saharan Africa. These have had a mixed record, and many have been widely critiqued. Nonetheless, schemes that were initiated under colonialism have been rehabilitated and new schemes are still being developed. This paper interrogates the continuing attraction of this model for irrigation, asking how and why it persists. Is the fact that engineering is so central to irrigation schemes another example of ‘high modernism’, as Scott might argue? Analysis of the history and current policy-making context of a new irrigation scheme in Malawi suggests a picture that is more complex, in which practical engineering considerations combine with narratives of modernisation and political imperatives to create momentum and lock-in. Understanding this, and why lessons from the past inadequately shape future-directed planning requires interrogation of the positionality of those involved, including state, donors and private sector actors and the political, economic and discursive fields in which they operate.

Suggested Citation

  • Harrison, Elizabeth, 2018. "Engineering change? The idea of ‘the scheme’ in African irrigation," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 111(C), pages 246-255.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:wdevel:v:111:y:2018:i:c:p:246-255
    DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2018.06.028

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Jean-Philippe Venot, 2014. "Rethinking commons management in Sub-Saharan West Africa: public authority and participation in the agricultural water sector," Water International, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 39(4), pages 534-548, July.
    2. You, Liangzhi & Ringler, Claudia & Wood-Sichra, Ulrike & Robertson, Richard & Wood, Stanley & Zhu, Tingju & Nelson, Gerald & Guo, Zhe & Sun, Yan, 2011. "What is the irrigation potential for Africa? A combined biophysical and socioeconomic approach," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 36(6), pages 770-782.
    3. Bryson Gwiyani-Nkhoma, 2011. "Irrigation development and its socioeconomic impact on rural communities in Malawi," Development Southern Africa, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 28(2), pages 209-223.
    4. World Bank, 2017. "Malawi Economic Monitor, May 2017," World Bank Other Operational Studies 26763, The World Bank.
    5. Suhardiman, Diana & Giordano, Mark, 2014. "Is There an Alternative for Irrigation Reform?," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 57(C), pages 91-100.
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    7. Klaus Deininger & Derek Byerlee & Jonathan Lindsay & Andrew Norton & Harris Selod & Mercedes Stickler, 2011. "Rising Global Interest in Farmland : Can it Yield Sustainable and Equitable Benefits?," World Bank Publications, The World Bank, number 2263.
    8. repec:zbw:espost:171366 is not listed on IDEAS
    9. Merrey, D. J. & Meinzen-Dick, R. & Mollinga, P. P. & Karar, E. & Huppert, W. & Rees, J. & Vera, J. & Wegerich, K. & van der Zaag, P., 2007. "Policy and institutional reform: the art of the possible," IWMI Books, Reports H040198, International Water Management Institute.
    10. Dey, Jennie, 1982. "Development planning in The Gambia: The gap between planners' and farmers' perceptions, expectations and objectives," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 10(5), pages 377-396, May.
    11. Gert Jan Veldwisch & Alex Bolding & Philippus Wester, 2009. "Sand in the Engine: The Travails of an Irrigated Rice Scheme in Bwanje Valley, Malawi," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 45(2), pages 197-226.
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    Cited by:

    1. Kikuchi, Masao & Mano, Yukichi & Njagi, Tim & Merrey, Douglas & Otsuka, Keijiro, 2019. "Economic Viability of Large-scale Irrigation Construction in 21st Century sub-Saharan Africa: Centering around the Estimation of Construction Costs of Mwea Irrigation Scheme in Kenya," Discussion paper series HIAS-E-87, Hitotsubashi Institute for Advanced Study, Hitotsubashi University.

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    Irrigation; Schemes; Development; Africa; Malawi;


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