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Measuring progress in megawatt: Colonialism, development, and the "unseeing" electricity grid in East Africa

Straeten, Jonas van der (2024)
Measuring progress in megawatt: Colonialism, development, and the "unseeing" electricity grid in East Africa.
In: Centaurus, 2021, 63 (4)
doi: 10.26083/tuprints-00021008
Article, Secondary publication, Publisher's Version

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Item Type: Article
Type of entry: Secondary publication
Title: Measuring progress in megawatt: Colonialism, development, and the "unseeing" electricity grid in East Africa
Language: English
Date: 22 January 2024
Place of Publication: Darmstadt
Year of primary publication: 2021
Place of primary publication: Oxford
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
Journal or Publication Title: Centaurus
Volume of the journal: 63
Issue Number: 4
DOI: 10.26083/tuprints-00021008
Corresponding Links:
Origin: Secondary publication DeepGreen

The electrification of East Africa followed an exceptionally uneven path. After about 50 years of relative neglect under colonial rule, the construction of hydroelectric dams moved electricity generation into the focus of late colonial development policy and became the major field of intervention for foreign donors after independence. The metrics of electricity attained a role as indicator and driver for economic growth, and therefore as a target figure in economic policy, one that was arguably not justified by their actual significance in the energy landscape of East Africa. This paper analyses both the global preconditions of this shift and its local repercussions. Rather than the physical visibility of electricity in the form of large dams and high‐tension lines, the paper focuses on the processes that rendered electricity ontologically visible. It traces attempts by engineers, expert advisors, or development consultants to translate the complex information associated with the generation and consumption of electricity into calculable and comparable metrics. The paper scrutinises these commensuration processes in terms of the resources and knowledge they required, the frameworks of agency they opened, and the way they fed into wider discourses of development. It asks how the metrics of electricity themselves became part of the colonial and postcolonial politics of calculation, as they increasingly came to be seen as a medium for conceiving national economies. This trend was reinforced by the ascent of development economics in the 1950s and its influence on the ontological foundations of international development cooperation and post‐independence nation‐building. Because of the calculability and capital‐intensity of its production, electricity lent itself perfectly to an economic policy based on macroeconomic aggregates and abstract growth models. Conversely, the electricity bias of international development agencies and the national government rendered rural, non‐commercial, and non‐productive energy use largely invisible.

Uncontrolled Keywords: Africa, colonialism, commensuration, development, electricity
Status: Publisher's Version
URN: urn:nbn:de:tuda-tuprints-210086
Additional Information:

Special Issue: Making power visible. Codifications, infrastructures, and representations of energy

Classification DDC: 600 Technology, medicine, applied sciences > 621.3 Electrical engineering, electronics
900 History and geography > 960 History of Africa
Divisions: 02 Department of History and Social Science > Department of History > History of Technology
Date Deposited: 22 Jan 2024 13:33
Last Modified: 23 Feb 2024 07:16
SWORD Depositor: Deep Green
URI: https://tuprints.ulb.tu-darmstadt.de/id/eprint/21008
PPN: 515636991
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