It isn’t often that romantic comedy and economic sustainability show up on the same screen but that’s what’s on offer in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by the Swedish director Lasse Halstrom.

Here are some thoughts from the perspective of development theory. They are not meant to spoil the fun, which this film truly is, but to just raise a few questions. (Attention! Spoiler alert!)

The project in question is a water management scheme in Yemen that will have the secondary benefit of providing recreation and tourism in the form of fly-fishing for salmon. All of this is the brain-child of a mysterious and fabulously wealthy fly-fishing fanatic with the somewhat unimaginative name of Sheik Muhammed (Amr Wakend). The  Sheik is also something of an Anglophile which might explain the several huge estates he has bought himself in Scotland to pursue his passion, as well as his interest in hiring Fred (Ewan McGregor), a U.K. Government Fisheries expert, and Harriet (Emily Blount) a private investment counselor to bring his brain-child to life.

So far the project is a public-private partnership writ large. The problem is that the Sheik lives in a country that has a lot of people who do not want western influences and probably resent his jet-setting life style. Despite warnings, the sheik pours tens of millions into the project only to see it disappear down the drainage ditch. Literally.

But this is where development theory comes into the script. After the large grandiose project is foiled by local politics, Fred and Harriet, who by this time have predictably become romantically entangled, vow to start over again (presumably with even more of the Sheik’s money) but this time to get ‘local buy-in’ and to get the locals to adopt the project ‘as their own.’ It’s not clear how this trio of idealists is going to overcome the deep political divisions that beset Yemen and it is also unlikely that they are going to get buy-in to a fly-fishing scheme from the well armed crew that upset their plans in the first place but in place of this skepticism, the film, through the words of Sheik Muhammed, asks us to have ‘faith’ that the project will succeed.

Despite the billions he has at his disposal to pursue an over-the-top life-style the Sheik, you see, is a deeply religious and philosophical man. For him fly-fishing is not so much a sport but a grand metaphor for the relation between man and the universe. His faith in the success of the project turns out to be much stronger than the forces aligned against it. Development projects fail not because they are ill conceived but because their authors simply do not have enough faith that they will succeed. In other words, they do not trust the universe.

In addition, we learn early on in the film not to jump to conclusions about specific countries and geographies. When he is presented with the project, Fred’s initial reaction is complete disbelief that it will work ‘because salmon need water and there isn’t any water in the desert!’ But as it turns out, this is a wrong assumption (but one probably shared by 99% of the people in the world when they think about Yemen.) We are told that this particular part of Yemen is different from the rest of the Arabian peninsula because it has a yearly rainy season and many underground water sources. Who knew?

The point that the filmmaker is trying to make is that we need to test our assumptions about people and places because much of what we have in our heads is simply wrong. Point well taken!

One of the other delights of the film is the performance by Kirsten Scott-Thomas as Patricia Maxwell the acerbic, Blackberry addicted  Press Officer for the British Prime Minister. Not interested in the social benefits of the project at all, she views the whole scheme simply as a ‘good story coming out of the Middle East’ that can offset all the dreary news coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. In this view, development assistance on the part of Western countries is simply a public-relations scheme that is intended to keep people’s minds off other things.

Since DFID, the UK’s well funded and very generous development agency, is not mentioned in the film (and as they would likely be involved in such a project in real life) it is fair to say that the film is a bit misleading in how development assistance really works. It is also unfair to the British tax-payer to suggest that their development assistance dollars are paying for little more than infomercials for British political ambitions.

As light entertainment, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen succeeds admirably. As an exploration of how development works in the real world it’s a bit fishy.

Sorry, I was just casting about for slippery end!

Michael Keating