De-Provincializing Development

By Jessica R. Cattelino (UCLA)

This entry in our “De-Provincializing Development” series examines SDG #6: Water and Sanitation, which strives to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

After a half-century of water summits, internationally designated water decades, and the like, the United Nations projects that two-thirds of the world’s people will live in water-stress conditions by 2025. With this daunting future in mind, two aspects of SDG 6’s targets warrant attention: the required “participation” of “local communities,” and the “special attention” paid to women and girls.

1) From Stakeholders to Local Communities

One of SDG 6’s stipulated targets, target 6.B, redefines the subset of “for all” that takes priority in water management. Imagine for a moment that the target was a Mad Lib: “Support and strengthen the participation of ___________ in improving water and sanitation management.” Most water managers and policymakers likely would fill in the blank with “stakeholders.” For decades, the logic and language of stakeholders—along with the related concept of interests—has dominated water policy and management, whether in international development projects or at regional scales like in the Florida Everglades, where my research is based. The idea seems straightforward enough: when designing policy or managing water (and other environmental “resources”), stakeholders should be identified and their interests stated and balanced. Underlying the emphasis on stakeholders is the premise that individuals and groups not only have interests but also act in their own interests. Understanding people’s actions in terms of stakes and interests, in turn, is part of a broadly distributed liberal economic commonsense that also includes such mainstays of water policymaking and management as cost-benefit analysis, ecosystem services valuation, and the valuation of water as a “resource.”[1]


Sugar Cane Field, Reclaimed Everglades, Southeast of Clewiston, FL. 2013. (Photograph by Adam Nadel; full caption below)

By contrast, this Sustainable Development Goal’s target fills that blank not with stakeholders but rather with “local communities.” This is significant for at least two reasons. First, it corrects for the frequent exclusion of local communities from designated stakeholders when it comes to water, an important shift because “stakeholders” more commonly refers to private landowners, NGOs, other land and water managers, and investors/donors. And although “community” is a notoriously slippery term, it at least signals some kind of collectivity, perhaps even one that is not bound solely by mutual self-interest.

Second, even when a stakeholder/interests model of policymaking and water management includes local communities as “stakeholders,” the problem remains that an interests-and-stakes framing of water management smuggles in the logics of the market. It does so by commensurating actors, all positioned as interest-bearing entities with seats at the table and interests to be balanced.[2] Furthermore, stakeholder logics stack the deck in favor of economic self-interest as a stake and of cost-benefit analysis and bargaining as methods. In the Florida Everglades, emphasis on stakeholders and interests sometimes wrongly commensurates Seminoles’ and Miccosukees’ indigenous rights as sovereigns with the interests of, say, agricultural businesses, urban water utilities, and the National Park Service. “Stakeholders” occupy a plane of equivalence, thereby diminishing indigenous sovereignty and amplifying economic interests above other ways of holding and representing value.

Of course, the term “local communities” comes with its own baggage and questions (e.g., what is local, especially in regional projects, and how is community defined?). Another concern about the “local communities” target—for which the official “indicator” is “proportion of local administrative units with established and operational policies and procedures for participation of local communities in water and sanitation management”—is the discourse of participation. Valuing “participation” can easily privilege dominant forms of engagement and wrongly render marginalized people responsible for their own disadvantages (Dhillon 2017), including when it comes to water management (Barnes 2014). Still, the turn in the Sustainable Development Goals from stakeholders to local communities is a welcome departure from global water management’s pervasive and exclusionary attention to stakeholders as such.

Taylor Bolin, Florida Cattlemen’s Miss Sweetheart, Avon Park, FL. 2012. (Photograph by Adam Nadel; full caption below)

2) Gender and Water

Lest the emphasis on “local communities” offer an unduly rosy picture of everyday water at the local level, there is no doubt that inequalities within and across local communities shape—and are shaped by—water access and distribution, decision-making, and quality. Gender is a major concern; target 6.2 calls for access to “adequate and equitable” sanitation and hygiene, “paying special attention to the needs of women and girls.” For several decades, women and girls have been a major focus of water management in development, largely because they are disproportionately responsible for water procurement. Despite a dedicated scholarly journal on gender and water and regular attention to “gender mainstreaming” in global water policy, much remains to be learned.

A team I lead at UCLA is carrying out research to better understand gender and residential water use in Los Angeles. (Here it is important to note that the Sustainable Development Goals, much more than, say, the Millennium Development Goals that preceded them, explicitly include the Global North and its many inequalities.) As LA and other major cities face the likelihood of long-term drought and mandatory water conservation, public utilities have turned to regulations like restricted outdoor watering hours and market-based solutions like tiered pricing. Public programs incentivize the installation of low-flow toilets and showerheads and other conservation-friendly devices. Still, we know too little about how households understand, value, use, and distribute water in everyday life. Why think about gender in relation to residential water use? On the one hand, gender remains a powerful mechanism by which roles are differentiated and conceptualized in American households. On the other, gender plays a key role in water policy in international development contexts. Putting those two facts together, there is reason to suspect that gender shapes household water use in the United States. Indeed, preliminary data analysis shows residential water use to be more gendered than users believe. Gender intersects with national origin, class, and, to some extent, race in shaping how LA residents understand and use water.

SDG 6 offers a platform for addressing gender and other inequities around water, wherever they take hold. These are urgent and intersectional matters, as recently demonstrated in North America by water-related movements in Flint and Detroit, MI, at Standing Rock, and in the Idle No More movement.

Without doubt, SDG 6 is ambitious, even grand, in setting its sights on sanitary water for all. Yet, by bringing local communities and all genders into the mix, in wealthier and poorer countries alike, this goal envisions a similarly grand coalition at work to improve our shared world. This is its premise, and its promise.

Barnes, Jessica. 2014. Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Dhillon, Jaskiran K. 2017. Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Espeland, Wendy Nelson. 1998. The Struggle for Water: Politics, Rationality, and Identity in the American Southwest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schmidt, Jeremy J. 2017. Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity. New York: New York University Press.

Figure 1. 
Sugar Cane Field, Reclaimed Everglades, Southeast of Clewiston, FL (2013). South Florida grows approximately half of the cane sugar produced annually in the United States, with a value in excess of half a billion dollars.  The small city of Clewiston (population 7,100) is home to the headquarters of the United States Sugar Corporation, and is known as “America’s Sweetest Town.” In 2008, the State of Florida and U.S. Sugar announced a deal whereby the state would buy out U.S. Sugar and all of its 187,000 acres and other assets for the purpose of Everglades restoration. The eventual state buy-back was dramatically scaled back, leaving U.S. Sugar in operation and a bitter taste for those who first supported the sale. Accusations of government handouts and favoritism to special interests were levied. Soon after, much of the land in the sale was re-zoned to allow for development. This re-zoning greatly increased land values, making any future buy-back for restoration unrealistic.
Figure 2. Taylor Bolin, Florida Cattlemen’s Miss Sweetheart, Avon Park, FL (2012). Beauty queens representing the beef cattle industry and environmental advocacy may not seem like an obvious combination. But they show that it is possible to transcend seemingly entrenched political categories and divisions. Taylor Bolin, as Florida Cattlemen’s Miss Sweetheart, traveled the state promoting the interests of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. After their reign, many Sweethearts work as Cattlemen’s lobbyists in Tallahassee. They and others have lobbied for a shared agricultural and environmental agenda: keeping and supporting cattle ranching in the upper Everglades watershed, especially in light of development pressures. Audubon Florida supports ranching as a comparatively beneficial use of land for maintaining water quality and quantity, and it has joined with cattle interests to support payment to ranchers for on-ranch ecosystem services, such as water storage and nutrient retention.
For more of Adam’s work on water, see his website. For more on his work with Jessica Cattelino, see the pieces in the NY Times and Lens Magazine.

[1] Moral philosopher Jeremy Schmidt (2017) traces the historical and epistemological coalescence, in water policy and management, of water as a “resource” understood in terms of abundance, scarcity, and, more recently, security.
[2] See Wendy Espeland’s (1998) analysis of (failed) commensuration in a (failed) Arizona dam project.

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