Abstract: “Advice Never Hurts the Giver”: The Role of Advisors in the Volta River Project in Ghana, 1952-1966

Stephanie Decker


The Volta River Project (VRP) was one of the major post-war development projects undertaken by the U.S. government and the World Bank in conjunction with newly independent Ghana, building a hydroelectric dam together with a domestic aluminum industry. Its protracted genesis was mediated by a range of advisors and consultants from different countries, whose international networks and ideological convictions at times influenced, at other times merely mirrored, the shifting allegiances of Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah. The U.S. government, U.S. aluminum companies, and the World Bank funded the ambitious design as a tactical decision in the global Cold War. Yet Kwame Nkrumahâ's non-aligned policy threatened to scupper the project, and the key advisors in the VRP, Sir Robert Jackson and his wife, Barbara Ward, who were friends of John F Kennedy and Nkrumah, worked behind the scene with the main private investor, Edgar F Kaiser, to ensure the VRP's viability in the early 1960s. Yet Jackson had had to overcome another of Nkrumah's advisors in the planning stage in the 1950s, W. Arthur Lewis, who considered the VRP a poor choice of project, and was subsequently dismissed. During the negotiations of the VRP, the World Bank advisors disagreed with the conditions set by the private investor, Kaiser, who successfully outmaneuvred the Bank;s consultants in 1961. Once the agreements were signed in 1962, Nkrumah's choice of advisors showed a marked tendency toward more politically left-wing individuals, undermining the influence of Jackson, Ward, and Kaiser. The tussle of advisors and consultants surrounding Kwame Nkrumah illustrates the ideological battles over which kind of knowledge of economic development would reign supreme. This was not purely a Cold War contest, as the advisors within the U.S. ambit disagreed on the "appropriateness" of certain techniques and political strategies in the African context. The VRP as the centerpiece of Nkrumah's ambition for economic development and scientific modernity was a key site of contestation and dissent on the future economic policy of Ghana. As a result of this highly negotiated knowledge, Ghana incurred a difficult legacy of modernization.