AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Volume 11, Issue 1
Fall 2009

Christopher Rowan. The Politics of Water in Africa: The European Union’s Role in Development AID Partnership. London: International Library of African Studies 24--Tauris Academic Studies, 2009.


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The author makes it clear where he stands: “I suggest that the discourse of partnership is used to put a glossy veneer on a relationship that is less about partnership and more about a hegemonic partner using its financial power to dictate terms to aid recipients” (p. 1). This volume then proceeds to examine how the European Union (EU) falls short of stated objectives to engage in partnership with developing countries, especially the ACP Group (the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, associated with the industrialized group, the G8). The author starts with a document from the Stockholm International Water Institute entitled Water and Development in the Developing Countries—A Study Commissioned by the European Parliament (SIWI Report 10, 2000) and builds his case for non-partnership.

Chapter 1 (What of Water?) identifies water as a human right, drawing upon international pronouncements regarding this resource. Water is, of course, highly symbolic, charged with social importance given its role in human health, in creating community, and promoting personal dignity. Yet (as the author does not emphasize) it is also a commodity, requiring water resource management, investment, institutions, and incentives. It is helpful to see someone survey the evolution of documents, statements, and rhetoric surrounding the topic, since such background information provides a context for examining interactions between the EU and developing countries. The author, however, does not explore links between the actual amount of aid and water sector performance across countries—a natural question for anyone interested in going beyond process to the actual impact of “partnerships.”

Chapter 2 (Friends or Foes?) proceeds to summarize the literature on the EU and Africa, focusing on the extent to which different scholars and observers saw the relationship as reflecting uneven power: Rowan finds that public documents identified principles that were not followed in practice. Other organizations, such as Wateraid, Oxfam, and Eurostep (nongovernmental development organizations) are referred to supporting principles which the EU did not always practice. Then the author reviews political theories of partnership from Hobbes (leviathan and a one-sided partnership), Locke (balanced relationship), Rousseau (emphasizing a covenantal association), and some African leaders (Nkrumah, Nyerere, and others).

Chapter 3 (Development or Dictatorship?) contrasts neoliberal globalization (and hegemony) with “partnership.” It would have helped to have a table listing key agreements (such as the Cotonou Agreement, Benin, 2000) to give the reader a clear sense of both the sequence of pronouncements and an encapsulation of key features—helping others understand the evolution of public documents.

Chapter 4 (The Partnerships) was the most interesting for this reviewer. The “partnerships” between Lesotho and Brussels and Mozambique and Brussels are explored, respectively, through ten and five interviews. In addition, Appendix 1 provides further details regarding each interview. Of course, such a sample size implies that the conclusions will be somewhat impressionistic, though the author seems to draw reasonable inferences from these meetings. What seemed lacking again were figures that identified the different stakeholder groups, including those who were not represented in the sample. It would help to have the institutional frameworks laid out clearly for readers.

The remaining chapters critique EU rhetoric, suggest next steps to overcome the asymmetric relationship, review the Cotonou Agreement, and provide concluding observations. One looks in vain for data on trends in water coverage in a number of countries and a test of the impact of EU support on sector performance in different countries. In a sense, the book is not really about all of Africa since it draws conclusions from two specific settings. A broader brush might have revealed more complex patterns. For example, had GTZ (the German aid agency, Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit) aid in Uganda been one of the case studies, the author might have drawn other lessons about how water managers and political leaders responded to externally-driven initiatives. References to the numerous studies appearing in policy journals about sector performance in other African nations would have added much to the book (see Mugisha and Brown, "From Despair to Promise: A Comparative Analysis of WSS Reforms in East African Cities," Water Policy, forthcoming).

Furthermore, other initiatives might have been given more attention by the author. It would have been useful to include more references to studies and projects funded by the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), a multi-donor partnership created in 1978 and administered by the World Bank. This technical assistance program has developed strategies for obtaining affordable access to safe water and sanitation services. Similarly, the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education (Delft) has extensive experience in capacity-building in Africa. Inclusion of such programs would have made the book more useful for those evaluating relationships between EU nations and Africa.

Ultimately, this reviewer read the book through an “economic” lens—which means that I may have missed contributions to debates within political science, public administration, and international relations. Nevertheless, those seeking insight on water in Africa will want to cast a wider net. For example, Matthias Krause’s 2009 book The Political Economy of Water and Sanitation (Routledge Studies in Development and Society) captures better the issues of equity and efficiency facing policy-makers and service providers in developing countries. Krause’s fourteen-page bibliography provides a much more complete set of resources than Rowan’s five page listing of references, though the latter book is more tightly focused. In conclusion, Rowan provides some fresh perspectives regarding the evolution of EU policy, drawing upon documents and a set of interesting interviews.

Sanford V. Berg
University of Florida