Blog post by Sandra Pointel, Doctoral Researcher, Science Policy Research Unit.
The recent workshop on the Nexus, resource conflicts and social justice, hosted at the Institute of Development Studies on 29 Feb 2016, addressed issues around ‘reclaiming the NEXUS from below’.
Despite much buzz around the energy-food-water NEXUS over the recent years, much contestation remains around what it means, what its purpose is and who benefits from it. Its emergence within the remit of the World Economic Forum and rapid take-up by several corporations raise questions such as:
- Is the Nexus an agenda mainly driven by the Northern hemisphere?
- How does it translate in in the Global South?
- Does it have any traction with local bureaucracies?
Multiple meanings of the NEXUS across players and scales.
Nick Hildyard from the Corner House set the tone with an entertaining analogy with the children’s book “Where is Wally?” in which readers need to find the distinctive red-and-white-striped shirt wearing boy among a crowd of people. “I have no clue of what the NEXUS is,” he said.
Learning from the bottom up to consider alternatives
- Shifting the focus away from high-level debates opens up to broader understandings of what the NEXUS might mean.
- Starting from realities on the ground, for example, the need to consider water, food, energy interactions is not new and is part of every-day lives.
- Attention to local considerations, where people practice the NEXUS without knowing it. This reveals, as Jeremy Allouche, research fellow at IDS, put it “a way of life, linking much more with livelihoods and not conceptually separated in the first place”.
- Small-scale initiatives, for example, may offer valuable insights into local practices.
While such approaches are likely to provide contrasting findings to top-down NEXUS framings, several issues still require attention. People in rural communities do not need an analytical framework to understand that water, food, and energy are connected, but public authorities deliver related services and not necessarily in an organised way, said Andrew Scott, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute. This leads to questions as whether the NEXUS is about institutions or government rather than people’s lives and villages.
Furthermore, while small-scale solutions are significant, considerations of alternatives cannot always be small-size, said Lucy Baker, research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU). In the electricity sector, for example, infrastructures projects such as dam constructions require large-scale physical and technical considerations as well as understanding of these complex structures. These in turn raise complex social science and political economy questions, notably regarding the role of the state, bargaining powers and capitalism.
Mind the politics
The disjuncture between global discourses and local realities should not come as a surprise to anybody concerned with social justice, resource conflicts and politics, prompting questions as whether there is anything new in the NEXUS?
Debates around climate change and sustainable development, for example, offer multiple illustrations of such disjuncture. Concepts such as energy security, water security and food security, widely used in policy and media circles, are also highly contested in their own rights.
While commonalities exist with other debates, based on a narrow global framing of issues at stake, particular NEXUS features deserve attention. Among competing global discourses, considering who is in the driving seat matters. Jeremy Allouche pointed out that the water sector has been prominent in pushing the agenda while there seems to be much less of a stake in the energy and food arenas.
Another important consideration is the early take up of NEXUS concepts by corporations. While the recognition of trade-offs is to be welcomed in sectors often considered in silos, solutions pushed forward, beyond managerial and technical approaches towards integration and securitisation, are not necessarily apolitical, emphasised Lyla Mehta, research fellow at IDS.
Following diverse actors across scales usually helps unpack politics and going beyond narrow global framings. But implications of massive powerful actors calling the shots and questions of how to engage with actors that securitise the debate remain to be addressed, Mehta added. While a right to reply from those concerned would have been welcome, corporations were particularly noticeable by their absence, despite invitation to participate to the workshop.
Beyond trade-offs management and integration
In order to scrutinise the potential use of the NEXUS as a political tool, attention to discourses and framings provides a useful entry point. Building on Hildyard’s analogy, Ian Scoones identified two different stories where Wally may be hidden.
The first narrative called “Wally goes to the World Economic Forum” currently appears to dominate global discourses. It reveals a character submerged in a “sectoral integration paradigm” where system considerations are the starting point and the “political is added later”. In line with policy narratives, it follows a clear structure with beginning middle and end: “Wally is in trouble suffering scarcity, subject to limits and planetary boundaries. Then a managerial solution is found and all is fine because of the NEXUS.”
While this approach might be convincing in some corners, further attention to what is excluded and included is necessary. A major issue with this narrative, Scoones pointed out, is that it does not reveal any of the underlying features as “why Wally ended there in first place” and underlying political economy of what ideas of cooperation, connection, consensus inherent of NEXUS solutions mean are not investigated.
Indeed NEXUS boundaries are rather “slippery” with considerable implications for problem framing and, therefore, solutions pushed forward. Despite multiple interpretations of the NEXUS, most discussions focus on the environment and the economy with economists’ solutions to internalise negative externalities, Scott emphasised, contrasting with the three dimensions of sustainable development where social considerations are also paramount.
Furthermore, land and labour and the three mechanisms of expropriation, commodification, and financialisation need attention to address any genuine concerns about social justice and conflicts, several speakers pointed out.
A second approach, Scoones suggested, is to place political considerations centre stage, starting with conflicts and contestations, opening resource struggle and democracy, focusing on diversity of options, contestations, and justice.
This second story called “Wally meets political ecology” starts at the other end and unfold in a different order, starting with local practices, power and politics and livelihoods. Since resource allocation always operates in a NEXUS, it considers how resources are used in everyday lives, how power and politics emerge in a site and how the NEXUS arises rather than challenges being predetermined and framed.
Away from managerial solution, this approach seeks to understand how different people use different resources, considers where and why resource politics take place, who wins/who looses and how different actors perceive and understand it.
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Image credit: with thanks to Engineering for Change on flickr.