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Political economy, water and the MDGs

Published on: 10/12/2009

Water resource management is critical for the achievement of many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Too often, the political economy issues that determine whether or not water resources are managed effectively are overlooked. Drawing on research from the Lake Victoria region, ODI Research Officer Simon O'Meally argues in an opinion piece for a greater focus on political economy issues in the drive to reach the MDGs that relate to water.

"Sustaining services continues to be a problem, and integrated water resources management (IWRM) remains an aspiration rather than a reality. One reason for this is that current approaches to water resources management are devoid of politics – the missing piece of the water puzzle", O'Meally writes.

O'Meally highlights three lessons from the World Bank-funded Lake Victoria Environmental Management Project (LVEMP):

Power and vested interests in water resources management - institutional and legal reforms were only enforced patchily. One reason was a lack of government capacity, but vested interests also hindered change, for example various lake-shore industries opposed stringent regulations on water pollution, calling instead for ‘voluntary’ standards. Enforcement problems were also linked to systems of political patronage. Such political economy insights can help practitioners to pinpoint the processes that hinder water reform and to devise strategic entry points to address these barriers. In this case, one entry point should be the support of mechanisms to involve a wider range of Lake Victoria ‘stakeholders’ in public financial planning.

Political contestation of ‘sustainable water management’ - ‘sustainable water management’ schemes also faced political economic obstacles – one of which was that ‘sustainable water management’ was highly contested. Contrary to some donor narratives, ‘sustainable development’ can mean different things to different actors, depending on their interests, values and ideology. Indeed, some blockages in LVEMP can be attributed to disagreements over what it meant to operationalise ‘sustainable water management’. Certain reforms were stalled because elites in Ministries of Finance prioritised economic growth
and macro-economic stabilisation, which conflicted with the goals of the more ‘conservationist’ elites
in Ministries of Water. Equally, various community organisations and front-line fishing communities resisted LVEMP schemes, arguing that there should be a major redistribution of water resource ownership before ‘sustainable’ resource use could be achieved. Collective action was hampered because the various groups did not have a shared goal to work towards. Practitioners should be aware that their approach is not politically neutral and may well be contested and resisted. By better appreciating this, practitioners can identify the actors who are likely to support, or oppose, their understanding of water management, and can promote consensus-building that goes ‘with the grain’ of political reality.

Knowledge: for whom and for what? Like many donors, the World Bank sees itself as a ‘technical’ agency (rather than a political actor) so it commissions scientific and economic water resource analyses. For LVEMP, most studies focused on ‘cataloguing’ natural resources, mapping pollution ‘hotspots’,
cost-benefit analyses and value-addition strategies. This knowledge can, to a degree, tell us where problems are and what could be done to solve them, but not how to make these recommendations a reality. Systematic political and socio-economic analysis is also needed to understand, for instance, why many of LVEMP’s findings were shelved and not integrated into political and policymaking processes, or why it is that many community groups resisted the co-management initiatives. Technical ‘soundness’ alone does not, it seems, guarantee political uptake.

This case suggests that astute political economy analysis has the potential to help donors improve the effectiveness of their water management assistance. Political economy is not, however, a panacea and should complement, rather than replace, the more conventional development tools. But it is indispensable for identifying viable entry points for assistance, reducing the risk of doing harm and increasing the chances of success. In particular political economy could be used to unpick the political economic constraints on ‘sustainable’ water use, which is vital for meeting MDG 7.

O’Meally, S. (2009). Political economy, water and the MDGs. (ODI opinion ; 136). London, UK, Overseas Development Institute. 2 pp.

Read the full opinion piece

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