From thinking to practice

I’ve just returned from two days at a conference on “The Water-Food-Energy Nexus in Global Drylands”, organised by the OCP Policy Center, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), Texas A&M and King’s College London. OCP (Office Chérifien des Phosphates) is Morocco’s national phosphate company and the world’s biggest exporter of phosphates and derivatives. OCP Policy Center is a new think-tank, funded by the OCP Foundation, and I have to say, so far, seems to be doing a good job of identifying key issues in the region. The subtitle of the conference was “Bridging science and policy”, based on the logic that there has been lots of ‘Nexus’ thinking and analysis, but little implementation. So I focussed my session on the practical implementation of all this clever ‘Nexus’ thinking.

There’s nothing intrinsically new or novel about ‘The Nexus’

‘The Nexus’ is neither new nor unique. Of course water, energy and food policy are linked, but then so is health, education and housing policy. Or trade, tax and economic growth. I challenged the participants to define what they mean by ‘implementing the nexus’ and to do so honestly. More often than not, and given the water-heavy audience, people actually mean ‘implementing IWRM’ rather than anything more sophisticated. Instead, I pitched the connections between water, food and energy policy as a set of ‘wicked problems’. Rittel and Webber (1973) articulated several characteristics of ‘wicked problems’, but I wanted to focus on three:

  1. “The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail because of the nature of these problems… policy problems cannot be definitively described.”
  2. “Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false;”
  3. “and it makes no sense to talk about ‘optimal solutions’ to these problems…Even worse, there are no solutions in the sense of definitive answers.”

The challenge is how government, private sector and civil movements interact (the ‘system’) to make ‘good enough’ in the face of hard choices and on behalf of ‘us’.

Framing matters

My second main point was that framing and context matter. How you talk about and define ‘Nexus issues’ has an impact on what your solutions might be. ‘The Nexus’ is not an objective concept – it is a slippery socio-political construct masquerading as apolitical science. ‘Implementing the Nexus’ is too often focussed on protecting natural resources for their own sake, which has limited political traction. I offered three alternate frames in current use that seem to have more traction:

  • As enablers of economic development – Water in and of itself is not an economic driver, but key growth sectors require reliable water supplies – it is a necessary but insufficient condition for growth. In turn, growth can provide the necessary resources for poverty eradication. Energy is similar, but can be a direct source of growth – for example, if it is exported in the form of petroleum products or electricity. Food is essential for growth by maintaining a healthy workforce but also commercial agriculture in some countries. This framing concentrates on the development or exploitation of water, energy and food resources.
  • As amplifiers of strategic resource stress – The flipside of being prerequisites for growth is that mismanagement of these resources can amplify resource scarcity – which at best acts as a drag on growth but in extremes can contribute to political instability if scarcity critically undermines the legitimacy of governments. Water is a resource challenge in itself, but it also serves to amplify other resource challenges by acting as a critical input and enabler in the extraction and use of food or energy. For example, irrigation can be a stressor of water availability in some context, but a solution to food security in others; water is also vital for security of thermal energy production. This framing is about avoiding and managing scarcity.
  • As an international relations challenge – Energy and food are global, transnational challenges where the global food and energy systems require common global responses to maintain stability. Water is still a transnational challenge – but it differs from other global challenges in subtle ways. Water is a global challenge where the solutions are at national and sub-national level. However, at the same time, national policies (or their absence) can lead to implications beyond national borders, so multilateral action on water is needed to facilitate and co-ordinate responses rather than homogenise or consolidate them. This framing is about the political implications of water, energy and food use.

Each of these framings is complex, but also interlinked, exponentially increasing the complexity of the situation. However, currently, these links in and between water, food and energy is not adequately reflected in decision-making. Water, food and energy policy are made in isolation, without fully considering the implications for the other policy areas. The ‘Nexus’ points to the obvious interconnectedness, but not what to do about it– it needs grounding in the realities of developing and delivering effective public policy in messy and complex political economy contexts.

Practical suggestions

Finally I ended with some reflections on a practical approach, based on the strong assumptions that governance is the key issue; the state is the main actor; and capability is the limiting factor. To that end, I suggested that interventions focus on how decisions are made and implemented rather than just the ‘what’ – in three focal areas (three is the magic number…)

  • Improve ‘good enough’ decision-making – expose complexity whilst simplifying decisions. Develop analytical tools that seek to answer a relevant policy problem. Bassel Daher from the Qatar Foundation gave a good example used in Qatar.
  • Address systemic bottlenecks to delivery – Institutional structures, static delivery models and financing vehicles need to be analysed more thoroughly. What’s really holding back progress? What are the root causes? This in turn should lead to targeted interventions rather than generic ‘capacity building’ efforts.
  • Living delivery system – develop adaptable policies and learning mechanisms. Given that it is impossible to make perfect up-front decisions, delivery systems need to provide feedback and have the flexibility to tweak and improve decisions whilst they are being implemented. Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett propose ‘Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation’ – clunky, techno-babble title aside, it’s a great framing and practical concept.

Great conversation, but so what?

Overall, it was an interesting and diverse conversation, with a suite of presentations from across disciplines. My only major criticism was the lack of female presenters – just 2 out of 32 (6%) of speakers and facilitators were women. The organisers blamed the lack of applications, but I think a lot more could and should have been done to get a more diverse set of voices. I don’t believe in arbitrary or token women, but there are some excellent, capable and eloquent women who could have contributed other perspectives.

Other than this, I particularly enjoyed throwing some bricks and challenging the ‘Nexus’ group-think. However, what struck me was the inability to think outside of the ‘Nexus’ frame and language. If ‘Nexus’ proponents really want to bridge science and policy, then they need to understand their target audience. Policy makers are not passive recipients of your wisdom. They are active agents in a political system. Policy makers have multiple competing issues in front of them – and they have larger priorities. If you cannot translate your issue into their language, into things that really matter to them, then you will not impact their decision – and maybe, just maybe, your current choice of framing is not relevant to those in power.

Here’s the lowdown on Storify

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