Seminar Presentation: ‘Replenishing the Borderlands: From Hydro-Freedom to Eco-Development in Cold War Afghanistan, c. 1946-1973’

After a bit of a hiatus from blogging, I’m glad to offer readers a quick update from the front of dissertation research and conference and seminar presentations. After a wonderful time at the LSE IDEAS Cold War history conference last week, I was happy to present another aspect of my dissertation research today at the Oxford Economic and Social History Thursday Graduate Seminar held at Nuffield College. I often joke with friends that in a time of turbulent economic change and unpredictable political events across the world, the Thursday Seminar is a fortress for History grad students at Oxford, if only because the kitchen staff at Nuffield seems to feel that huge slices of butter are an appropriate sandwich topping to go with everything from roast beef to salmon to shrimp to olives and peppers. Multiple generations of students who have presented at this seminar have complained to the kitchen staff about why they put butter in sandwiches, and this this venerable institution marches on …

Nuffield College: home of semi-decent seminars by Tim and heavily buttered sandwiches

In any event, after removing the equivalent of a stick of butter from my sandwich, I was happy to give a talk of about twenty-five minutes (which you can download here, or view the Prezi here) on one small aspect of my dissertation research, namely that of environmental development in Cold War Afghanistan. Here’s the abstract for the talk:

During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Afghanistan was a major recipient for international development from the Soviet Union, United States, West Germany, and several emergent international aid agencies. Perhaps the most spectacular example of Afghanistan’s developmental moment were several attempts to remodel and replenish the landscapes, forests, and rivers of Afghanistan, among them the American-led Helmand Valley Project, an attempt to dam and canalize the Helmand and Arghandab river systems of southern Afghanistan, and the West German-led Paktia Project, an attempt (in part) to replenish the forests of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.

This presentation examines the intellectual history of such environmental development in Afghanistan, and the emergence of the concept of ‘development’ during the early years of the Cold War more broadly, through a close reading of two key sources: the  memoirs of Paul S. Jones, an American hydrological engineer who worked on the Helmand Valley Project in the early 1950s; and archival materials and interviews with West German development workers who sought to replenish the forests of Paktia Province in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 
More specifically, it examines the terms on which Jones and the West Germans justified their ‘Afghan venture’ (the title of Jones’ book) – what historical role they thought they were performing by doing ‘development’ work. The American Jones viewed Afghanistan as a ‘new frontier’ in the global struggle to bring down Communism by mastering Asia’s hydrological terrain to bring down Soviet and Chinese Communism. West German development workers, while coming out of a development tradition that had its roots in Nazi ambitions to remodel an occupied Eastern Europe, they viewed their work in Paktia less in terms of a global struggle against Communism than in more modest terms of locally-led development, a novel concept at the time.
I’ll have another talk up in about a week, with hopefully a few posts between now and then. But this is looking to be a busy term in terms of talks: next week at Corpus Christi College, a conference at the Lahore School of Economics in mid-May, in Belgrade for a conference on the history of the Non-Aligned Movement. Add to that (in theory) more D.Phil. writing and it’s looking to be a busy – but exciting – Trinity Term here.

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