As I sat in my Political Economics class the other day, my professor gave a very simple answer to differences in economic development between countries: INSTITUTIONS. Of course, this answer is not an epiphany by any means, but rather it is a realization of what some countries really do lack. We may not think about it here in the U.S because of the continuously stable system we have in institution. However, this becomes far more obscure when we think about countries which are unable to implement real solutions to real problems because of the lack of these institutions. One of these problems is water, which the 6th World Water Forum addressed last week. After writing my previous post on what the 6th WWF could bring, I looked at the effects of it afterwards and what sustainable solutions might be floating about. The slogan for the 6th WWF was “It’s time for solutions and commitments”, but what I mostly found from the outcome of this forum were ideas on solutions and commitments; that is ideas that need initiative for them to be successful solutions. What I think is lacking and which many leaders pointed out are practical answers.
Many leaders point out that practical answers can be found from proper management of water provisions, with an emphasis on local authorities. As Sulton Rahimov, first ministry of the Ministry of Melioration & Water Resources of Tajikistan, pointed out “If we learn and practice the basic management of water management than we can reach out to more and more people”. What we must emphasize here is that this management has to come from local authorities, who are willing to realistically implement policies of water resources and water sanitation.
Let’s step back. We have reached a point in time where we have clearly stated all the grievances on the lack of potable water and the need for solutions and commitments as the 6th WWF stated. Many people have also recognized that water costs money and that each government needs to be responsible for this. But the more ideas that are brought out in an effort to find the best answer, the more time that is wasted when real hands-on work needs to be achieved throughout the world.
The idea that institutional mechanisms play a significant role in economic development is true, especially in sectors like water resources and water sanitation. However, the solution is not as simple as one word. The solutions to each individual local problem that each country has on water come from the needs and wants of the stakeholders and decision-makers at the local level. As Hamilton Karugendo, from the EMBU Water and Sanitation Company in Kenya said: the stakeholder is the main consumer and we can no longer afford to continue talking about theories and ideas (while so many suffer), but we must be practical and take action. The trend of ideas that the 6th WWF has brought is that practical collective action needs to be taken at the local level, a bottoms-up approach Mats Karlsson from Sweden (director of the Centre for Mediterranean Integration) stated will engage local authorities in a different way. Karlsson summed up what I believe most leaders agree on but are not really listening to:
“Sometimes we get lost in the politics of this or that country, migration and these issues, but we have to realize we are one common economic space. And the more we do to give that depth and institutional strength the more people will really create good things out of it–more than the international processes”
It is this belief in institutions that is driving leaders to create sustainable solutions. Now we must ask how much of this is actually implemented in local governments; as many have said in the 6th WWF, the technologies and theoretical solutions are there, but how do we apply these?
I think a great idea that I saw from the 6th WWF comes from David Winberg, a research scholar for the IIASA in Austria. He described a scenario (quantifying) model that is able to improve decisions between stakeholder groups and decision-makers with models. He described it as one that demonstrates models and is able to capture the thinking and needs for decision-making by the stakeholders depending on whether they like the scenario presented or not. This allows for communication and improvement on the model that ultimately is what would be implemented as policy (sort of a trial and error method).
I point this out because it is great to say that institutions help economic development and that they are a necessary tool for policy such as in the water sector, but we need to look beyond the idea that all institutions will work. In effect, I think that the reason why so many of these ideas are left on paper is because of the risk people are unwilling to take—the uncertainly of whether a particular policy or institution will work.
I certainly don’t have the great answer to our water problem. However, I do believe that local governments need to gather all necessary information to make the best decision for their own communities. Learning by doing and the “150 years of adaptive management” is what the U.S has been implementing regarding the water sector. As John Tubbs from U.S Water and Science put it, the U.S was at the 6th WWF not only to recognize its great accomplishment but also to acknowledge the learned consequences of these. With this “adaptive management” solutions , which Karen Fraser described, there are constantly changing answers depending on the problems created, giving a great amount of autonomy to state governments with federal endowments to the states for improvement on construction of water infrastructure.
Is the U.S. the best and only example of institutional effectiveness? No. But it has been implementing many of the ideas that most leaders agree upon: local institutions, proper management and local commitment and execution of these ideas. Isn’t it time that for local governments to take action?