Sitting at the Swedish Embassy in Nairobi with responsibility for transboundary waters (I am responsible for the Swedish support to the Nile Basin Initiative as well as the Lake Victoria Basin Commission) my thoughts are going back to the basic political science on international politics that I read a long time ago. What does that have to do with development cooperation and support to transboundary water management one may ask? Well, quite a lot I think.
Having observed transboundary water management programmes and the people involved in managing those as well as the complexity (technical as well as political) which is associated with these programmes I am inclined to think that perhaps bit more of Machiavellian analysis would make sense. Anyone that has read his seminal book The Prince would be familiar with the pre-eminence of power in its hard and brute form. He can be seen as the forefather of what has become the realist strand of political science. However, most people working with development cooperation and support to, among others, transboundary water management programmes are clearly not realist. Quite the contrary, we tend to be fans of Immanuel Kant (although not always aware of it) who is behind what is called the idealist or functionalist school of thinking. An idealist tend to believe that cooperation over a “low politics” issues such as water may be something that spur cooperation over even more sensitive political areas. And that cooperation would spur more cooperation.
Often it has been assumed in the debates over transboundary water that if we build technical cooperation that would lead to more political contacts, improved relations and eventually equitable agreements signed. Still, that is not really what is happening in cases such as the Nile or the Jordan River Basin.
It may be argued that in the development business (myself included) there has been a tendency not to engage to much with the perspective that realism represents. This perspective has been left to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs security people and the Ministry of Defence. In sociological language there has been a de-emphasising of the risks associated with such a perspective. Arguably, often development practitioners adopt more of a functionalist approach to matters. This may result in that certain risks are missed with potentially serious consequences. Issues of power relations in a river basin context are but one example. If these are ignored in the preparatory work there is a risk that investments may be misguided or that there is a risk that the results of the investments may be derailed by political conflicts not anticipated at the outset (because the development practitioners had their ‘functionalist’ glasses on).
Thus, it may be so that some investments that were viewed as going to result in good results actually do not and that this is, from a realist perspective, understandable when looking at the assumptions made at the outset of the project/programme. What to do about it? Well, to start with it may be argued that a bit more of a Machiavellian analysis would do the development community a favour.
by Dr Anders Jägerskog, Associate Professor, First Secretary
Senior Programme Manager, Water Resources
Regional Team for Economic and Environmental Development (REED), Sida
Embassy of Sweden, Nairobi, Kenya