From Davos Breaking the silos in sustainable development

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

25 January 2014 See comments (1)

WEF panel discussion
WEF DAVOS 2014: Panel chaired by John McArthur, UN Foundation.

This time it is about a more formal session, with the usual WEF seating on leather (I am not sure it actually is leather, and they are not supposed to be comfortable), and a good crowd in the room. The session was public.

The discussion was about silos, single issue thinking without a proper consideration for the context. Such silos are often in our minds; at the same time, silos and fragmentation are still prevalent in the institutional/bureaucratic setup. A couple of years ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ky Moon told us here in Davos, for instance, that there are 16 different units in the UN looking after water, often with very little communication and understanding among them.

The discussion was also about ways to overcome silos.

Efforts probably have to start with a better understanding of externalities: biofuels were mentioned, which were introduced and heavily subsidised to reduce dependency on energy imports and, allegedly, to reduce CO2 emmissions, while not considering at all the devastating impact on food security and on water security.

A further step was to form partnerships. Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development of the UK, made clear that the question was not whether public and private sector should cooperate, but rather when they should start doing it – basically the sooner the better. Maria Kiwanuka, Minister of Finance of Uganda, underlined that for a good partnership it was necessary to first be clear about the respective strengths and responsibilities of those potentially involved.

Partnership should not end in a kind of invitation to all who want to join, but it should be result-oriented and at the right level – in the case of water security at watershed level. – and primarily among those who have a real stake and will constructively contribute to a solution.

In my remarks I mentioned 2030 Water Resources Group as a good illustration of the mindset for a next-generation public-private partnership. It includes both developing and industrialised countries, multilateral institutions and business. The main goal is clearly defined: bringing water withdrawals back into line with sustainable supply. We work at several levels, global for the tool and for knowledge exchange, local for implementation.

Breaking silos also means clear overall strategies. The sum of a big number of ad-hoc public-private partnerships will not bring sufficiently comprehensive solutions. There is no market, like in the case of commercial companies, that crowd out the inefficient and those offering goods or services that nobody wants.

We need, therefore, governments that set priorities, particularly to make sure scarce resources are properly allocated among the broad range of urgent needs – this was an important reminder formulated by President Kikwete a few years ago when we served together on another panel here in Davos.

And we also need the intergovernmental organisations to set priorities beyond individual countries; this is clearly one of the strengths of leaders such as Luis Alberto Moreno and his Inter-American Development Bank.

Last but not least, we need the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly on water within the context of other priorities, to make distinctions between the most urgent issues and the things that are just "nice to do".

In such a framework, silos will not completely disappear, but will at least become permeable.

  1. Kene Carol Dick @ Department of Water Affairs

    04 Feb 2014 - 08:18 (GMT)

    Breaking the silos is very good in water resources management because it will help in knowledge transfer and capacity building. However water resources management requires an integrated approach than an single approach. Integration taps into the various expertise which enhances capacity building and also provides the platform for knowledge exchange. Water is a scarce commodity that requires joint efforts in terms of water conservation & demand management. Both the public sector, the public and the private sector have to work together in order to achieve the future demands of the scarce resource.

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