River basin organizations in the global water discourse: an exploration of agency and strategy.

Author:Mukhtarov, Farhad
Position:Essay
 
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This article describes the role of transnational policy entrepreneurs in producing and maintaining the global discourse of river basin organizations--a key element of global water governance. It takes an agency approach and draws on three streams of literature--discourse analysis, political ecology, and political economy--to derive strategies that transnational actors may use to advance discourse. To illustrate agency and strategies, it draws from a wide variety in types of RBOs across the globe. It finds that global knowledge networks exhibit the most expansive reach, serving as the oil in the machine of the global RBO discourse. This finding raises important questions around networks in the broader global water governance discourse as well as compelling questions related to governance. KEYWORDS: river basin organizations, discourse, scale, politics, agency, transnational policy entrepreneurs, political ecology, political economy, networks.

REFLECTING BROADER TRENDS IN GLOBAL GOVERNANCE AWAY FROM A SYSTEM of decisionmaking and collective action dominated by a few key intergovernmental institutions, global water governance may be seen as increasingly diffuse, heterogeneous, fragmented, and unpredictable. (1) Representing more of a multilevel arrangement that includes local, national, and basin levels, global water governance entails not only governments but also international nongovernmental organizations (ING0s), global knowledge networks, and private sector actors who formulate and implement policy and frame discourse at multiple and interrelated levels. (2) Through the development of knowledge, development assistance projects, global water meetings, and publications, these transnational actors shape global water discourse and governance.

Central to global water governance are river basin organizations (RBOs) that are organized at the basin level to serve as forums to link various governance levels, including the local, national, and global. RBOs are on the rise globally today, increasingly promoted by transnational policy actors supporting good governance concepts in developing countries. (3) In the past two decades, both domestic and international RBOs have been established in virtually every region of the world. (4) As primary mechanisms for water governance, RBOs provide forums for critical water management issues, including conflicts around water quantity and quality as well as the use of water for human and environmental needs. (5)

Despite the rise of RBOs and their importance to governance, the trajectory that this concept has traveled to reach its position of global prominence and the role of transnational policy actors in advancing and maintaining RBOs is relatively unknown. (6) We address this gap by examining transnational policy entrepreneurs and their strategies in the rise of the modern discourse around RBOs. We see discourse as "an ensemble of ideas, concepts and categories through which meaning is given to social and physical phenomena, and which is reproduced through an identifiable set of practices." (7) Unraveling the working of a discourse helps us to explore the debate, uncover which and whose agendas are being served, and ultimately offer pathways for strategic positioning of actors in the debates on water governance.

Although there is rich literature on discourse theory and its application to the environment, no unified analytical framework exists for examination of the path through which discourses become dominant. (8) An agency approach, representing the ability to exercise authority and influence policy change, (9) suggests explicit attention to policy actors as change agents and their strategies as the means to instigate or block the RBO discourse. Through an integration of several literatures, we identify particular strategies of transnational actors in water governance and apply this typology to illustrate how different actors make use of these strategies. We begin with a brief overview of the theoretical foundations of our inquiry and a call for integration. Next, we outline the types of transnational actors and their preferred strategies. Finally, we discuss implications of our findings.

A Call for Integration

We draw on three streams of literature--discourse analysis, political ecology, and political economy--to derive strategies that transnational actors may use to advance discourses. Collectively, these streams highlight issues of power, the role of framing in getting policies on the political agenda, and the importance of material incentives versus ideas in motivating actors. From the perspective of agency, the political ecology and political economy approaches accentuate the role of agents in shaping institutions. Discourse analysis accentuates the role of structure, institutions, symbols, identities, and language in constituting agents and shaping their preferences and behavior.

Discourse Analysis Scholarship

While there are fine nuances between different discourse approaches, they all hold the view that reality is a collectively held social construct and that language shapes perceptions, preferences, and interests of actors. (10) For discourse theorists, a policy arena is never monodiscursive; rather, discourses exist in plurality and compete for structuring meanings. (11) Discourses must be loosely defined and open for multiple interpretations in order to allow different actors to buy into them. (12) Discourse analysts see the rise of a concept to prominence and its spread across jurisdictions as linked primarily to ideational factors. Some international relations scholars argue that attention to discourse can help shed light on indirect effects of power. (13) In the context of international river basins, some scholars call attention to the use of discourse to highlight or subvert existing power asymmetries between states in water conflicts in transboundary river basins. (14) Others note how discourses of water scarcity in transboundary river basins may influence water management strategies and institutional practices to reinforce large-scale infrastructure and development approaches. (15)

Political Ecology Scholarship

Broadly, political ecology calls attention to social relations of production and power as they shape human relations with nature. (16) Political ecology scholars place an emphasis on scale, which is "of mounting theoretical and practical relevance." (17) As socially constructed and historically contingent, scale can contribute to the discussion of water governance, which often presents debates about the appropriate scale of water management. (18) To better understand conflict in international river basins, some scholars suggest that it is important to study how the ecological scale, such as the river basin, interacts with or relates to local and regional governance scales and sources of social power. (19) In the case of some Middle Eastern basins, including the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Jordan rivers, the construction and use of scale has been associated with the consolidation of power and maintenance of strong, centralized states. (20) In addition to scale reflecting power and social factors, it has also been argued that scale reflects shifts in dominant ideologies and in sanctioned discourse. (21)

Political Economy Scholarship

The political economy approach puts emphasis on the working of power, with specific attention to nonstate actors. (22) This approach emphasizes the key role of material production in shaping reality and power: production creates the material basis for all forms of social existence and the ways in which human efforts are combined in productive processes affect all other aspects of social life, including the polity. (23) Some authors accentuate the role of constructivism in international political economy, especially regarding perceptions and meaning in the working of power. (24) For example, Charlotte Epstein demonstrates that it was the framing of whales as "magnificent creatures" rather than "resources" that allowed for antiwhaling discourse to take hold and influence the international whaling regime. (25) The interaction between the power of ideas and material interests is key to analysis, and a political economy approach to water governance provides valuable insights into power structures and economic forces in struggles over water. (26)

The Role of Transnational Policy Entrepreneurs

"Policy entrepreneurs" can be seen as actors who invest their energy and time to instigate or block particular policies at the transnational level. (27) Building from earlier classifications of institutions active in global water governance, (28) we identify key transnational policy entrepreneurs with the expertise and resources to frame RBOs as a vehicle to solve a number of development-related problems in four broad categories: (1) intergovernmental organizations and government-based aid organizations; (2) ING0s; (3) global knowledge networks; and (4) private sector actors.

Intergovernmental organizations constitute the most visible group of actors that promote RBOs. They tend to be bureaucratic in structure, highly networked, well funded, and have broad international visibility. In Latin America, for example, organizations such as the World Bank, Organization of American States, United Nations, and Inter-American Development Bank have actively promoted river basin authorities. (29) In the former Soviet states, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Global Environment Facility, and UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) have been active in promoting river basin planning. (30) Government-based development agencies also have contributed to the rise in RBOs. For example, government-based development organizations from the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Canada have contributed to cooperative and institutional development in the Danube--Black Sea region. (31)

INGOs act as representatives of...

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