A response to Water Alternatives Special Issue on Shedding Light on Hidden Dynamics in the Water Sector.
Don’t speak your mind until you’ve retired. That’s one message readers might take from Water Alternatives special issue on Shedding Light on Hidden Dynamics in the Water Sector, an issue, “intended to bring to the fore many of the problems, ethical dilemmas, and frustrations that those of us involved with international development recurrently encounter, but rarely discuss and hardly ever write about.”
Personally, I have little affinity with the ‘retire and tell all’ trope. Every year some doyen of business, preeminent academic or four-star general does it. I don’t doubt what they say is mostly true, but the thought that comes unbidden to my mind is always, “You didn’t or couldn’t do anything when you were in a position of power and influence so why should I listen to you now?” A terrible bias I know but it’s mine so I cherish it.
There is nothing ‘hidden’ about powerful elites arranging things to suit their interests, about cronyism, corruption or vested interests. It’s all there in plain sight and we’ve all seen it and run up against it constantly. It’s not as if we don’t know how the ‘real world’ works, we just often don’t know the salacious details.
An aspirational vocation
“Where would we be without dreams?” asks Walt Kelly’s 1950s political cartoon character Pogo. “Reality, that’s where.” We work in development because we see the harsh realities in which too many live and we want to change it for the better. Development is an aspirational avocation. We aspire to a world where women have the same rights and opportunities as men; where children are well fed and educated, where smallholder farmers get a fair shake. We know it’s not easy and we are cognizant of the obstacles. What we don’t need is an antidote for our idealism.
I might have reacted differently had I found anything in these pages to encourage me or help me deal with common “problems, ethical dilemmas, and frustrations”. What I found was ‘war stories’ from old hands who are safely out of the fray. At best, this is lore that should be shared between mentor and mentee. I do agree there is much value in “academic scrutiny” of “the social and political processes at work in water law or policy making”.
Such scrutiny is abundantly available in the literature on political ecology, sociology, history and related disciplines. Want a primer on power? Machiavelli’s The Prince. A whimsical but so right on analysis of how bureaucracies work? Parkinson: The Law Complete. The politics of knowledge? Richard Ohmann and Janice Radway’s book on the commercialization of the university and the professions. I’m sure you have your own favorites. My point: little is hidden if you look for it.
But few people read outside their own sliver of discipline so everyone learns the same lessons over and over again in the School of Hard Knocks. By the time I get to the twilight of my career, I’ve learned enough to be worth listening to, but no one does because now I’m “that old guy with a lot of boring stories about stuff that happened before I graduated from high school”.
I don’t mean to disparage the authors of this issue and the intent is noble. The authors obviously learned a great deal during their careers. It does inform current practice to know about the history of water organizations in France (Pierre-Frédéric Ténière-Buchot); 50 years of hydropower development in Chile (Michael Nelson); and why the South African National Water Act has been so difficult to implement (Barbara Schreiner). It’s just unfortunate that by and large, organizations pay lip service to learning and the only platform for their wealth of knowledge is a special issue.
Having thoroughly trashed the special issue and no doubt offended some sensibilities, allow me now to redeem myself with a more constructive line of thought. Consider this special issue not a one-off but a beginning.
Is there a learning organization in the house?
In my fifteen years of practice I have worked with a score of development agencies, government departments and companies. Not one of them comes close to the fabled “learning organization” so many claim to be. In most organizations “remembering” is the missing capacity (if you have a counter example please share it). In part, the reason for this lost capacity is that most organizations allow knowledgeable colleagues such as the authors of the special issue to walk off into the sunset with no attempt to harness that great wealth of experience.
Suppose we were to invite our esteemed colleagues to form something like a College of Mentors (with the addition of a few women please). Now let’s look at some of the excellent research we have, for example, an economic analysis of a subsidy regime on drip irrigation equipment in Madhya Pradesh that illustrates how said scheme distorts the market and prevents substantial gains in farm productivity, or a case study that describes in some detail the bureaucratic bottlenecks that prevent smallholder farmers in Zambia from purchasing affordable diesel pumps. Let’s then present that excellent research to our College of Mentors and ask if they have any suggestions for how to move those findings towards outcomes.
I would be surprised if they couldn’t offer some very practical ideas. I would be further surprised if they didn’t know people in their rich network of contacts who could drop a word or facilitate an informal meeting or two that might lead to things happening. No guarantees, but it seems a more likely pathway to outcomes than publication in scholarly journals.
All we need now is an organization with the imagination to give it a try, because I’m quite sure our senior colleagues would welcome the opportunity. They are ‘Hidden Dragons’ not paper tigers.