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Gaining public acceptance: A critical strategic priority of the World Commission on Dams

John Dore
Water Resources Advisor, Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), Mekong Region; john.dore@dfat.gov.au
Louis Lebel
Director, Unit for Social and Environmental Research, Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University, Thailand; llebel@loxinfo.co.th

ABSTRACT: Gaining Public Acceptance (GPA) was a strategic priority recommended in the final report of the World Commission on Dams (WCD). GPA remains a central, thorny challenge for all parties interested in how society makes decisions about the development of water resources, the provision of energy, and the maintenance of ecosystems, whilst striving for social justice. The WCD'€™s GPA is largely about issues of procedural justice (e.g. inclusion and access) and proposes process-related principles. Distributional justice is also important (e.g. equitable sharing of benefits; and, avoiding unfair and involuntary risk-bearing).

Several key lessons are emerging from past initiatives to gain public acceptance through participatory exercises. Differences in development and sustainability orientations are obvious in debates on dams and need to be explicitly considered and not glossed over. Politics and power imbalances pervade participatory processes, and require much more attention than they receive. Ultimately, the accountability and legitimacy of state and non-state actors are crucial but complex as there are many ways to build public trust.

To earn legitimacy and more likely acceptance of important public decisions we suggest a comprehensive set of 'gold standard' state-society attributes for improving governance. Multi-stakeholder platforms (MSPs) can help deliberation to become routine, enabling complex water issues to be more rigorously examined. The combination of increased public trust, earned by the state, and high-quality MSPs to assist more informed negotiations, we see as being key to the gaining of public acceptance.