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Collective action, corporate action: what works in water stewardship?

Written by Nathaniel Mason


​Natural resources, and their management, have seen a surge in corporate interest that seems unlikely to slacken. There has been a mushrooming of water initiatives involving the private sector under the banner of water stewardship, which claim to address shared risks through the combined effort of business, government and civil society. ‘Collective action’ is getting a few mentions in the water stewardship world, a positive sign that deep-rooted challenges of power and politics are being confronted. But a brief look at the long tradition of thinking on collective action for resource management suggests we need to dig still deeper to tackle imbalances of capacity and divergent interests. We are, after all, dealing with a resource on which lives, livelihoods and economies depend.

Here’s my take on where water stewardship’s encounter with collective action needs to go next.

I mapped the activities of a range of corporations – principally food and drink companies – when water stewardship featured highly at World Water Week in Stockholm last year. At the time I had some reservations, suggesting for example that more needed to be done to enhance transparency and legitimacy through participation of civil society, particularly local civil society.

Fast forward to World Water Week 2013, and things seemed to be heading in the right direction. The clearest effort to confront difficult questions comes courtesy of the CEO Water Mandate, a public–private initiative under the UN Global Compact, who launched a guide to collective action for water stewardship. There is an increasing recognition that imbalances of capacity, resources and information can make it difficult for some parties to engage in natural resources debates, so it’s worth paying attention to the guide’s emphasis on the question: ‘who should be involved to represent different interests?’ However, there’s still a long way to go to make water stewardship genuinely participatory, and to secure equitable outcomes.

For example, there seems to be a flawed assumption that local people with a stake in a water resource will have organised themselves into recognisable entities already – entities that can be invited into water stewardship partnerships ‘to represent different interests’. Instead, a fragmentation of actors, and interests, may be more likely, for example among small-scale subsistence farms or peri-urban households, with which a business might share its water.

Local users do frequently self-organise to address collective action problems – as the work of Elinor Ostrom showed so forcefully. But her research also suggests that water stewardship initiatives need to think carefully about how to foster bottom-up collective action.

Ostrom points out that self-organising processesare more likely under certain conditions.

  • where their resource system is reasonably sized;
  • where people can assess the condition of their natural  resources easily, and at low cost;
  • where availability of the resource units is relatively predictable; and
  • where resources are degraded but not yet destroyed.

Several of these conditions are harder to meet at the watershed scale, where the numbers of users and range of different interests increase, where information on the condition, uses and availability of water is patchy, and where climate variability and change hampers predictability.

Ostrom also argues that collective-action processes developed by local usersthemselves are much more effective and resilient than those are imposed from outside. Locally organised collective action can be easily disrupted by outside interventions: for example, by aid that ignores local context, or the rapid introduction of new technologies. This presents a dilemma for businesses, donors and other organisations that want to support meaningful involvement of local resource users.

In the face of these challenges, three suggestions might help:

  • Develop a neutral space for local resource users to obtain and share reliable information, learn from one another, and self-organise in smaller collective units, before attempting to initiate broader collective action involving much more powerful entities like multinational corporations, government agencies, donors, and international NGOs.
  • Invest in understanding the broader policy and cultural environment. Peoples’ willingness to engage in collective action can be shaped by their recent experience. If the policy environment is repressive, will people decide it is in their interests to self-organise? Such legacies need to be understood before seeking to engage local resource users in water-stewardship partnerships.
  • Think carefully about who pays for what. The CEO Water Mandate’s guide urges companies seeking to initiate collective action to provide financial support for those with less capacity to engage, on a ‘no strings attached’ basis. But in practice there may be less risk of perverse incentives if financing to support initial development of grass-roots collective action comes from ostensibly neutral parties, for example NGOs or donors. Once the rights and responsibilities of all actors in a collective response are agreed, then business revenues can be used to support local people through a constructive longer-term arrangement. An example of this from Naivasha in Kenya involves companies paying farmers to protect their ecosystem under the rubric of ‘environmental services’, which reduces water-related costs in the long run.

All of these suggestions will take time. Businesses meanwhile want to see quick returns from their investments, including those in water stewardship. As one representative of a beverage company remarked in Stockholm this year, ‘capacity building is sometimes overemphasised at the expense of progress and quickish results’. But the very fact that this type of collective activity is new, and so charged with tensions, means it must take time. Ultimately, if a company with a stake in natural resources wants to develop a really strategic business, it needs to be able to look beyond the next annual balance sheet.