Development Work: Labor at the Aswan High Dam, 1960-1971

By Gabriel Young
Submitted to Session P5006 (Histories of Infrastructure and Techno-politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper contributes to the historiography of development by researching the human labor that went into the construction of a single infrastructure project. I focus on the approximately 35,000 workers who were critical to the construction of the Aswan High Dam between 1960 and 1971, but who were often effaced in nationalist celebrations of the genius of Nasser and his chief engineers, environmental studies of the High Dam’s impact on local ecologies, and scholarly accounts of the hydro-political controversies that it instigated. Hence I investigate the representations and processes of labor at the High Dam so as to elucidate those social dimensions of development that both practitioners and scholars often elide in favor of an emphasis on elite perspectives and technical knowledge.

My primary source research has entailed extensive reading of contemporary Egyptian periodicals like al-Ahram, al-Musawwar, and al-?Ummal; governmental project reports; administrator memoirs; declassified State Department records on labor mobilization and infrastructure programs under Nasser; and popular Egyptian films, poetry, and prose. Recently published oral hitories provide a critically important window into present-day attitudes. I utilize these sources to illustrate how the construction site at Aswan was a complex social environment, with its ethnically and geographically diverse labor force, varied work tasks, “company town” characteristics, and intersecting management structures. Moreover, I show how the labor process was itself imbued with cultural meanings regarding the material, personal, and social value of work at the High Dam, value which was to be realized in both the contemporary present and long-term future. Finally, I argue that these narratives of High Dam labor nevertheless belied the complexities of a development project marked by both confrontation and accommodation. Some workers lived and died amid deeply hazardous conditions and went on strike to protest unjust labor policies, while others enjoyed better treatment and opportunities for upward mobility ; state agencies and private contractors successfully obviated serious conflict at the point of production by introducing army officers to discipline the labor force, but also by providing crucial social services and cultivating a sense of community.

Ultimately, my research extends the analyses of techno-politics and subject formation put forth by historians of Middle East development like Timothy Mitchell, Toby Jones, and Cyrus Schayegh by considering the social relations and processes of political economy embodied with developmental infrastructures.