James Parker headshot

James Parker

Post-Doctoral Fellow

Dissertation Title:
The Fluidity of Late Colonial Development: Water Management, State Building, and Rural Resistance in Kenya 1938-63

My current research positions rural East Africa within a broader global narrative of environmental management and social change by examining the role that access to water played in colonial Kenyan statecraft between 1938 and 1963. I study three development projects in the arid and semi-arid landscapes of Kenya, where the colonial government invested thousands of pounds expanding water access into the hinterland to spur agricultural production. Rather than benefiting rural groups, these centralized projects altered the ecological properties of the land with dire consequences, as the rerouting and redistribution of water left entire regions parched and barren, and communities fighting for access to dwindling resources. By comparing policy proposals and implementation with the protestations and resistance of community groups, I foreground communal attempts to push back against their exclusion from water resources while examining how development policy altered local production and modes of survival. Based on extensive English and Swahili archival sources in Kenya, the United Kingdom, and the United States, my project ultimately argues that the colonial Kenyan state’s obsession with profits over rural lives cut off communities from water, leading to drought, famine, and dispossession on an enormous scale. That the British government were frequently unaware of these outcomes further demonstrates the disconnect between global policy makers and localized experiences and demands the centering of rural voices. As such, my approach offers a new historical perspective on the implementation of development policies and provides a localized socioenvironmental perspective to a topic dominated by top-down political and economic analyses. Reinserting water, and the human relationship to it, is vital to understanding the role of economic policy in shaping environments in the global south. Centering the experiences of resistors and rural populations further draws attention to the inequitable distribution of resources and the role of capital and race in development ideologies.

Post-fellowship placement: Assistant Professor of History at Texas Women's University

Northeastern University