I’ve recently returned from a meeting of the 4th Nile Basin Development Forum in Nairobi (http://nbdf.nilebasin.org/). This event, held every two years, highlights many of the development challenges in the basin and explores opportunities for transboundary cooperation amongst the countries and peoples sharing this iconic river. I attended it for two reasons – first, I was invited to moderate a session on Financing Transboundary Cooperation co-convened by the Nile Basin Initiative and the World Bank, and second, because I wanted to take the opportunity to showcase the exciting work that we are doing in East Africa – including working directly with farmers across the Nile basin.
I attended sessions on familiar themes such as the water-food nexus and the role of civil society, and listened in on the Donor’s Development Forum where the emphasis seemed to be (at least initially) on funding investments for results. I also spoke to scores of people on the cooperation challenges facing states in the basin, where the messages were often mixed – donors sensing that it was time for the NBI to stand on its own two feet; riparian countries seeking further support to sustain existing institutions and accomplishments. Some countries (e.g. Sudan) began assuming a new public importance at the meeting as brokers between upstream and downstream parties – and seemed happy in their newly-assumed position.
In many ways it was just another regional ‘policy event’. Key politicos lined up to praise cooperation and push for all states – including those currently ‘showing unwilling’ – to enjoin efforts at achieving real development for the basin’s economies and peoples. I left Nairobi thinking it was quite interesting, useful science had been combined with high-level policy dialogue, and a general consensus was emerging on the need to put development at the centre of cooperation. Some called this achieving effective cooperation.
But then I was struck by the huge gap in thinking that the NBDF represented: this was triggered first by an email I received heralding the 15th of October as ‘International Rural Women’s Day’ (http://www.un.org/en/events/ruralwomenday/) and, second, by the coincidence (?) of sequencing in that the 16th October is also World Food Day (http://www.fao.org/world-food-day/home/en/). This proximity to each other and to the recently-attended event triggered a thought process.
First, I realised that a huge elephant had lurked in the background during the two-day forum, to which the audience was largely oblivious but which is front and centre in terms of basin development. That is the presence, role and activities of an estimated 40-50 million women of working age in the basin whose daily toil in rural areas brings value from the complex of water, land, soils and other natural capital bequeathed to them by their surrounding environments. More than anything else their work represents the challenge of development in the basin and signifies a very close relationship between gender empowerment and development and change: How they farm, what they farm, what they farm with and their approach to managing landscapes, soils, water resources and crops will be a future key to unlocking much of the rural development potential left in the basin, and to triggering the kinds of transformations required to lift millions out of poverty. This is, above all, an issue of women’s empowerment, and our work in East Africa to bring in women ‘champion’ farmers (see http://www.gwieastafrica.org/champion-farmers/)as key decision makers and investors in their own resource management and smallholder farming futures is an essential part of what we’re calling ‘water-smart agriculture’.
The kinds of development changes required to shift from subsistence to more profitable and food-secure farming in the Nile has to place women in rural areas as a pivot around which other actions and investments are built.
Second, it is increasingly apparent that there is a ‘critical nexus’ of issues emerging in rural areas, around which, choices made at household level, will bear on the well-being of millions of basin inhabitants. These are the relationships emerging between food production, resource availability, new technologies and demand for water.
We’ve found in the case of our champion farmers in Otuke, Uganda, for example that addressing these ‘critical nexus’ relationships can help unlock huge development potential. Where there is demand for produce and water can be made available in the dry season, significant additional income can be derived from local market sales. This can provide opportunities for education and other socio-economic benefits with knock-on and multiplier effects in rural areas, the importance of which should not be underestimated. Over years, and even decades, small increments such as this can have major longer-term impacts.
So, here’s a call derived from this coincidence of events and days: at the next Nile Basin Development Forum, please place the most important development practitioners – rural women farmers – at its hub. The focus on development projects, thus far, has been skewed towards larger infrastructure investments – including important energy production and pooling. But at the 5th NBDF the people of the basin must be at the forefront. Development, after all, isn’t registered in KwH and crop yields, it is measured in lives saved, education completed, health gained and, at the start of it all, rural women empowered.
Dr. Alan Nicol
GWI EA, Uganda