Public diplomacy in Nile Basin: Role of non-state actors in transboundary water cooperation

Public diplomacy in Nile Basin: Role of non-state actors in transboundary water cooperation



When I was chairman of the Nile Basin Discourse (NBD) between 2008 and 2010, I participated in all activities of the NBDF by virtue of my position but also as a resource person, presenting papers. This is the first time I have been invited to participate in an NBDF activity since 2010.

I was, therefore, surprised when I received a telephone call from the Acting Regional Manager of the NBD, asking me to participate in NBDF’s Online Webinar Discussion of the above-mentioned topic as the keynote speaker. I accepted, and that is why I am participating in the capacity I was asked to participate.

The last time I acted as a keynote speaker in a Nile Basin activity was during the 1st Nile Basin Discourse Summit in December 2017.

My keynote address was based on a paper I wrote for the summit with two other scholars, and whose title was “Transboundary Water Governance for Inclusive Development and Environmental Sustainability in the Nile Basin” under the theme “Integration and Inclusion: New Ideas for Collaboration in the Nile Basin” and subtheme “Knowledge Exchange and Governance”.

I see a similarity and relationship between my activity then and the current activity. Then the word of focus was collaboration, and now the word of fucus is cooperation. They mean the same thing; that is working together towards a shared aim. In this case the shared aim is “manage the River Nile Waters inclusively and effectively for the benefit of all stakeholders or actors in the Nile Basin”.

I am, therefore, happy to be involved in this Online Webinar Discussion of the 7th Nile Basin Development Forum (NBDF) as the keynote speaker on the topic of discussion.

To-date collaboration or cooperation in the management of the Nile waters has not been as inclusive as it should. Indeed, when the inter-State manager of the Nile waters – Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) – was formed at the end of the 1980s to promote socio-economic development in the Nile Basin, it was a basically political-technical undertaking.

The work of NBI was, therefore, oriented towards exploitation of the Nile waters to fuel the development choices of the member Ssates of Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Eritrea acted as an observer then. As time went by, it became clear that NBI was to be used as the agency to ensure that the Nile waters were maximised for hydropower production at all costs. The people or communities of the Nile Basin were not really factored in this strategy.

Factoring in the people or communities of the Nile Basin was an afterthought, when the World Bank (WB), International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) together conceived the formation of a regional civil society organization (CSO) or nongovernmental organisation (NGO), which came to be known as Nile Basin Discourse (NBD). It was formalised in 2003, with the formation of country-based forums in each of the member countries.

NBD was supposed to act as the voice of the voiceless in the dynamics of NBI, but it became clear that it was not inclusive enough of the non-state actors. Even the civil society organisations that became members of the NBD were not adequately representative of the organised civil society in the Nile Basin. Neither were all the Nile communities well represented in the NBD.

Although NBD was expected to operate in a bottom-up orientation, it tended to operate in a top-down fashion, with most of its activities over-centralized. This became more and more apparent whenever there was scarcity of funding. No meaningful involvement was evident in the forums.

As such, there was no meaningful negotiation of development in the Nile Basin. What the nation states desired was what obtained, with NBD ending up as just a legitimising agency of even unwanted, people-insensitive, community-insensitive projects, mainly for hydropower.

If there was sensitivity of NBI to people’s or community aspirations in the Nile Basin it was reactionary, not anticipatory. The subject matter of this Online Webinar is Public Diplomacy. This is important because it implies expansion and integration of many non-state actors in promoting transboundary water cooperation in the Nile Basin beyond the NBD. It implies involvement of all publics in all spheres of life.

I agree the involvement and spectrum of nonstate actors in promoting transboundary water cooperation should go beyond NBD and its Forums, if public diplomacy is to be meaningful and effective. It should include:

  • All organised civil society
  • All universities and other knowledge centres
  • Research institutions
  • All Nile communities
  • The media (Print, internet-based, etc
  • Cultural institutions
  • Think tanks
  • Independent thinkers
  • Developers
  • Spiritual institutions
  • Schools
  • Intellectual communities

This is the same as saying that there is need to expand and extend public participation in order to make public diplomacy effective. Public diplomacy (PD) could thus be seen as an extension of the negotiated approach (NA) to capture the widest spectrum of non-state actors in water governance and cooperation. 

NA refers to the efforts of CSOs and NGOs undertaken to involve local groups or local communities in integrated water resources management (IWRM).

The efforts promote negotiations as processes in which participants are able to reach understanding of and resolve problems based on the shared common interests, rather than bargaining processes in which individuals participate to defend their own positions and interests against superior forces, such as those involved in Nile water issues.

Public diplomacy would thus be basically different from the negotiated approach because it would involve far more types of non-state actors than locals, negotiating not bargaining. This is how negotiated rather than imposed development would be achieved.

It will be necessary to think of the right science to use in promoting integration of different non-state actors in public diplomacy. The science should be integrating, not disintegrating science. Integrating science would produce for us integrators that value teams of both specialists and no specialists genuinely interacting to promote genuine cooperation or collaboration.

Fortunately, we have new knowledge production cultures of interdisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, trans-disciplinarity and non-disciplinarity (extra-disciplinarity).

I am not aware of where public diplomacy has been employed to promote transboundary water cooperation. It is a new innovation. If successfully developed and applied in the Nile Basin, it will be a first contribution to widening the scope of actors in transboundary water governance for sustainability.

Why it is important to involve the public and or non-state actors in transboundary water governance

First and foremost, the Nile water is a public resource even if efforts in our globalized world have been selfishly made to financialise, commercialise, de-culturalise and de-spiritualise them. From time immemorial the Nile water has been not only a source of bodily but also cultural and spiritual endowment of Nile peoples and communities. Involvement of Nile peoples and communities as well as other non-state actors makes the management of the Nile water a collective undertaking and a democratic imperative.

It also relays the message that all actors have a responsibility to ensure the sustainability of the Nile for the benefit of all. All must be integral to the development processes in the Nile Basin Region.

What the Nile basin initiative, governments and development partners can do

Governments of the Nile Basin countries and various development agencies and partners have been the primary actors in the transboundary water governance processes through the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). If they agree or have agreed that public diplomacy is now a must and thus seen the involvement of other non-state actors as a critical necessity, then they must jointly accept to drive it well in future.

It must be their joint duty, responsibility and obligation to widen public participation in transboundary water governance for inclusive development and for environmental sustainability and justice. They must together find the resources -human and non-human – to make this a success story. Without widening the spectrum of stakeholders, development of the Nile water will continue to emphasize only large hydropower infrastructure at the expense of other essentials in development.

Public diplomacy is a strategy in collaboration or cooperation among stakeholders. There is need for NBI. Governments and development partners to embrace the sciences of meaningful and effective collaboration between all stakeholders. These sciences are also called team sciences or new cultures of science, namely: interdisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, trans-disciplinarity and non-disciplinarity (or extra-disciplinarity). They must invest in these sciences to produce new future-ready professionals that can genuinely interact with all stakeholders – professionals and non-professionals.

They can help our universities to open up to the team sciences or establish a separate university in the Nile Basin where all the different team sciences can coexist and produce all the professionals that we need to ensure effective transboundary cooperation for transboundary water governance.

Emerging issues

  • How do we conquer the privileged positions of state actors and technocrats?
  • Receivability and acceptability of public diplomacy
  • Vision of public diplomacy of for transboundary water cooperation
  • Principles of public diplomacy regarding: local action, empowerment, use of integration technique, institutionalisation of consensus, negotiation as a tool, integrity and resilience of ecosystems, Appropriate science and technology, gender balance, transparency and accountability, flexibility
  • Best practices: genuine interaction, gender balance, transparency, accountability, sustainability, integration, critical thinking, future-ready professionalism
  • Team sciences

Lessons learned

  • Genuine interaction is a must
  • Collective recognition, respect and reward
  • Integrative thinkers and actors
  • Integrative professionals
  • Critical thinking
  • Barriers to effective interaction
  • Lack of integrative and integrating universities
  • Unawareness of integrating and integrative sciences


  • Lack of collective mindset for public diplomacy
  • Resistance by State Actors and bureaucrats
  • Lack of a critical mass of people that can engage in Public Diplomacy
  • Newness of the integration technique
  • Unawareness of integrating and integrative sciences
  • Exploitative development
  • State commitment to development via large hydropower infrastructure
  • Elitism
  • Lack of sustainability thinking
  • Divergent values between different actors and non-actors
  • Dominance of exclusivity over inclusivity in development

Next steps        

Public advocacy for:

  • Integrated and integrating universities
  • New and different knowledge integration sciences to produce people who can work in teams
  • Sustainability science
  • More open government (s)
  • De-emphasisze large infrastructure
  • Prepare Future-ready professionals
  • De-bureaucratise transboundary water governance
  • De-commercialize and de-financialize Nile water resources


Negotiated approach for Integrated Water Resources Management was innovated by civil society long ago. The time for public diplomacy arrived long ago but the approach is only beginning to be taken seriously. Both negotiated approach and public diplomacy matter, but must be pursued simultaneously and integratively. Virtually all types of non-state actors must be involved alongside and in genuine interaction with State actors, NBI and development partners. Respect must be at the centre of the interaction. There is nothing impossible under the sun. Governments, NBI and development partners can help strengthen non-state actors’ involvement in public participation and/or public diplomacy by supporting the proliferation of integrating and integrative science at our universities, or establishing a separate institution specifically for that. Future-ready professionals that value teamwork are badly needed for public participation and public diplomacy to work.

  • A Tell report / A Tell report / By Prof Oweyegha-Afunaduula, a former professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences of the Makerere University, Uganda
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