EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


Building promises: how international, state and local actors collaborate on public construction projects in non-democratic environments

Location M-649
Date and Start Time 02 August, 2014 at 11:00


Jeanne Féaux de la Croix (University of Tübingen) email
Katiana Le Mentec (CNRS) email
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Short Abstract

We compare large public construction projects in non-democratic contexts. How do international business, development and government actors collaborate in building projects that promise a better future for citizens? And: what are citizens' roles in and reactions to such projects?

Long Abstract

This panel investigates large public construction projects such as the Olympic infrastructure of Sochi (Russia), the Three Gorges Dam (China) or new cityscapes in the Gulf. These projects are realized by non-democratic governments collaborating with international development organizations and construction companies to heighten government authority and avoid political revolutionary change. Such large projects can garner public support of citizens who are promised a bright future, or fail to do so, and thereby catalyze social movements demanding political change, as in the recent protests on the urban development plan for Istanbul's Gezi Park.

We invite papers that explore the interactions and links between international, state and local actors through concrete case studies ranging from nuclear power plants to highways and capital cities. We particularly encourage submissions of ethnographic cases examining collaborations as 'sticky engagements' (Tsing 2005) between different kinds of actors, scales and leading motives. Papers may discuss current public construction projects or achieved ones, such as Soviet cities, and in this case may consider their memory and legacies.

The comparative framework of the panel intends to explore two theoretical questions:

1 - What can we learn about changes since the end of the Cold War, in governmental, developmental and market dynamics around public building projects and in their interaction with citizens in non-democratic contexts?

2 - How do public building projects in non-democratic context, allow us to rethink ideas and entities called 'development', 'state' and 'the market' as they mesh in new assemblages (Ong and Collier 2005)?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Building the future: public construction projects in post-Soviet Kazakhstan and the European Union

Author: Mateusz Laszczkowski (University of Warsaw)  email

Short Abstract

Comparing the construction of Kazakhstan’s new capital city and of high-speed railway in an Italian Alpine valley this paper explores how collaborations are established to support or resist large-scale construction. Comparison invites rethinking notions of ‘democratic’ and ‘non-democratic’ politics.

Long Abstract

This paper juxtaposes insights from my 2007-2012 doctoral research on the construction of Kazakhstan's new capital Astana and a new project exploring the controversies surrounding the building of high-speed railway (TAV) in Val di Susa in the Italian Alps (fieldwork starting March 2014). Post-Soviet Kazakhstan is a country commonly deemed authoritarian. In the 2000s, in alliance with transnational companies and investment funds, the government built a spectacular planned capital to manifest a vision of consolidated statehood and technologically advanced future. The Italian state, still haunted by the spectres of fascism and political violence between left-wing and right-wing groups, is nonetheless a leading member of the European Union—allegedly the solid ground of pluralism and democracy in today's world. The construction of the TAV is a part of a European-wide network of railway connections. However, over the last twenty years the project has triggered protests, first by the inhabitants of the Susa valley whose homes and livelihoods will be heavily affected by the TAV, and soon by a range of nation-wide social movements decrying environmental destruction, elite irreverence of local concerns, and corrupt linkages between the Italian government, the EU, big business, and the mafia. Comparing the two cases, I ask how the state is experienced through large construction projects in different social and political contexts and against different historical backdrops. Who are 'state' agents in these cases, who are their allies, and who are the discontents? The comparison also invokes questions about what we mean by 'democratic' or 'non-democratic' politics.

Abu Dhabi: the promise of an exclusive city

Authors: Laure Assaf (Université Paris Ouest (France))  email
Clémence Montagne (PARIS IV - PSUAD)  email

Short Abstract

We compare two case-studies (Al-Raha beach and the Corniche) in order to examine the interplay of different scales and actors within the spatial planning of Abu Dhabi, and the way they disregard, reinforce or bypass ethnic segregation in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Long Abstract

Gulf cities have become well-known for ambitious public construction projects which shape the cityscape through spectacular architectures. Capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is no exception, and its "Vision 2030" projects a utopian image of a modern Arab capital embracing global standards of sustainability (Masdar city), connectedness and knowledge-built economy (Saadiyat island).

This paper examines what is at stake behind this "vision" from a geographical and anthropological perspective. Making the future city involves private and public actors whose relationship, in the Gulf, is often ambivalent. Through the analysis of two recent development projects, the Corniche and Al-Raha beach, we compare the ideal city - and citizens - that are designed by government actors to the city actually produced through the conception and execution of these projects by semi-private developers. In turn, these are confronted with the unequal access to, and appropriation of, these public spaces by the residents of Abu Dhabi, in particular along the lines of ethnic belonging.

Although the Corniche and Al-Raha beach are both conceived as leisure spaces, they offer two opposite models. The Corniche is an old public space in Abu Dhabi, and its centrality and accessibility make it a showcase of the social, economic and ethnic diversity of the city, despite constant transformations. Al-Raha beach, on the opposite, is the offspring of the Plan Abu Dhabi 2030: although it argues of being transit friendly, open on the beach and offering all amenities, it is a gated community accessible to residents only, and thus strengthens spatial segregation in Abu Dhabi.

Thirty years of interaction between actors involved in the Three Gorges Dam Project: focus on meaningful ethnographic portraits

Authors: Katiana Le Mentec (CNRS)  email
Florence Padovani (Paris 1 University)  email

Short Abstract

The non-democratic Chinese context allows a wide range of grievances and opposition to big construction projects such as the Three Gorges Dam. The paper presents portraits of representative actors and analyzes interactions considering the political evolution over the last thirty years.

Long Abstract

In a changing political context such as in China, how were actors involved in debates surroundings such a big hydraulic project as the Three Gorges Dam? What were the impacts of this project on the people's means of action in this non-democratic environment?

In the 1980's, the Three Gorges Dam was open to public debate, but after 1989, in Mainland China, no more contestation was allowed. The project was voted in 1992 and achieved by 2009 - a period of great soci-eco-political change.

This paper discusses various actors involved or reacting to this hydroelectric project: from international institutions and firms, to national officials, environmentalists, scholars or journalists and local people affected by its consequences. We aim at presenting the evolution of these actors' interactions throughout the 30 years of the project implementation, a time witnessing new means of communication (like Internet), new actors (like lawyers, and NGO) and an increase of people awareness of their rights.

Relying on intensive fieldwork and data collected from 2000 to 2014, we will present an overview of this evolution through portraits of representative actors.

The first part analyses national and international actor's motives and means of action before and after 1989. In a second part, examining three districts upstream of the Dam we show the gap between contexts, and emphases the specific means, legal or not, that local people used to raise their grievances. The last part considers religious practices, legends and geomancy as subsidiary and meaningful tools used by people to participate in the general debate.

Building big dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan: when and how does the political culture of a state impact infrastructure projects?

Author: Jeanne Féaux de la Croix (University of Tübingen)  email

Short Abstract

A comparison of building big dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Similarly poor post-soviet states, the two have developed very different political cultures since independence. Both have taken up huge dam projects resisted by down-river states. How do degrees of citizen participation or freedom of speech matter in planning these infrastructures?

Long Abstract

This paper compares the political process of building big dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and citizens’ reactions to them. These small post-soviet countries are much poorer than their neighbours, yet their mountains are the source of much of Central Asia’s water, and thus hydropower potential. Both have taken up late Soviet plans for ambitious dam-building projects much resisted by down-river states. Yet each country has developed a very different political culture since independence, with governments exercising very different degrees and kinds of economic control, cooption and censorship. The comparison will be based on joint ethnographic fieldwork with Mohira Suyarkulova in 2013. We draw out reactions to the dam construction by citizens around dam sites, dam workers, technicians. I will also use media analysis to discuss government rhetoric and depictions of the dam in popular media, e.g. Tajik pop songs celebrating the project. Such a comparison of projects vaunted as revolutionizing the fate of the two countries is an opportunity to explore the differences in citizens’ relations with the state through the medium of water, electricity and dam development. In the case of such large infrastructure projects, when and how does the political culture of a state come to matter?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.