wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Graham Hancock

Lords of Poverty

Roads that end in rivers and then continue blithely onward on the other side, silos without power supplies, highly sophisticated equipment that no one can use installed in remote places, aquaculture projects producing fish at $4,000 per kilo for consumption by African peasants who do not even earn $400 a year, dams that dispossess thousands and spread fatal water-borne diseases, resettlement schemes that make the migrants poorer than they were before they left home, that destroy the environment and that obliterate tribal peoples—such blunders are not quaint exceptions to some benign and general rule of development. On the contrary, they are the rule. In consequence, the Third World today is littered with the festering carcasses of many prodigious white elephants.

A classic example is provided by the Kenana sugar complex in the Sudan, a country that, fittingly enough, has hunted all its genuine four-legged elephants to extinction. The result of a feasibility study done in 1974, which put total costs at a containable $150 million, Kenana eventually started producing refined sugar in 1981. By then the final bill for the plant had risen to an awesome $613 million.

Believed to be the largest scheme of its kind ever created, there is almost nothing about Kenana that looks right in the Sudanese context. The 40 megawatt power-station, the network of conduits and canals (the main one twenty miles long), the pumping station to lift the waters of the Nile 150 feet from the canals to the fields, and the factory capable of crushing 17,000 tonnes of sugar a day—all these ingredients and many more seem to belong in some futuristic vision of an advanced agro-industrial economy rather than in the heart of one of the very poorest countries in a destitute continent.

Neither does the feeling of unreality, of something being seriously wrong and out of place, end here. In line with the World Bank's insistence that Sudan should earn more foreign exchange, Kenana was originally intended to export sugar on a large scale. Unfortunately, however, the project site—at Kosti on the White Nile—is separated from the nearest port by more than a thousand miles of bleak and burning desert. Since there is a huge surplus of sugar on world markets, and since this state of affairs keeps the international price for the commodity low, there is just no margin for heavy transportation costs. As a result, although sugar is produced at Kenana today, it is sold almost exclusively in the Sudan itself- and at a price significantly higher than that of imported sugar.

The main beneficiaries of the project are the 400 expatriates who run the entire show. Each of these managers receives a very substantial salary, of which the bulk—almost 70 per cent—is denominated in foreign currency payable abroad. There are also some 15,000 Sudanese labourers; most, however, are migrants from quite far afield and live in dormitories around the site. By contrast only 2 per cent of the indigenous Kenanian tribe have found work: they are paid at the rate of approximately $3 per twelve-hour day.

Kenana is matched in both scale and unsuitability by another Brobdingnagian Sudanese scheme—the Jonglei Canal, which was intended by the consortium of aid agencies that backed it to draw water off from the Nile's swamps in order to irrigate much of the southern part of the country. Construction of the canal, which began in 1978, called for the use of nothing less than the largest mobile excavating machine in the world. This juggernaut was bought second-hand and required constant maintenance by costly teams of foreign technicians; it also had an insatiable appetite for spare parts, consumed lakes of imported fuel, and crawled forward so slowly that, after two years of digging, the Jonglei had fallen seriously behind schedule—so seriously in fact that the Sudanese government defaulted on its own share of the payments to the French company that had won the construction contract.

Fresh infusions of international aid made it possible for the excavations to continue, presumably on the tried-and-tested donor principle that no opportunity to throw good money after bad should ever be wasted. By this time—1980—it was already being estimated that the canal would cost at least three times as much to complete as had originally been budgeted. An even more fundamental problem had also emerged: hostile opposition from southern Sudanese peasants who feared that an invasion of wealthy northern farmers would follow the Jonglei's slow but remorseless progress. Aid agencies ignored the frequent protests that were made, but were soon to regret doing so. When the long-anticipated civil war finally broke out between north and south in 1983, the first action of the newly formed Sudan People's Liberation Movement was to hit the Jonglei Canal. Foreign workers were kidnapped and the giant digger was closed down. It remains closed to this day—a monument to bad development.

Similarly, on the Thai island of Phuket, one recent World Bank project—a $44 million tantalum-processing plant—was regarded as such a fiasco by the local inhabitants that they burnt it down.