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Viewpoint -€“ Overreach and response: The politics of the WCD and its aftermath

John Briscoe
Gordon McKay, Professor of the Practice of Environmental Engineering, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, US;

ABSTRACT: This essay recounts the story of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) from the perspective of a former World Bank official who is often credited with first creating and then destroying the WCD. The story is consistent with the (in my view) only accurate previously published description of the politics of the WCD, that of the anti-dam leader Patrick McCully. In essence, this assessment is that the WCD was an extraordinarily audacious process, which aimed to substitute the legitimacy of the states in developing countries (elected in most cases, accountable in all) with the will of anti-dam NGOs that are not accountable to anyone except their fellow advocates. This essay outlines the reasons why no dam-building country has accepted the central recommendation of the WCD -€“ the 26 Guidelines. While the rejection of the Guidelines (by countries and by the World Bank) is bemoaned by anti-dam NGOs, this essay argues that this well thought-out rejection represents a positive and long overdue turning point in the governance of development assistance. Accountable representatives from the developing world eventually did their duty -€“ they developed a coherent and united position rejecting the WCD Guidelines and articulated a vision of why water infrastructure was central to growth and poverty reduction. This essay shows how this coherence evolved and how important it is in counterbalancing the moral hazard ('I decide, you live with the consequences') that pervades most discussions of development. Finally, the essay outlines the hope which this evolution and broader changes in global economic geography hold for bringing accountability and some common sense to the often Alice-in-Wonderland world of development cooperation.