Molle, F. (2008). Nirvana concepts, narratives and policy models: Insight from the water sector. Water Alternatives, 1(1), 131–156.

Nirvana concepts, narratives and models have all been used to propagate certain policies and decision-making in the water sector. Each of these ‘discursive objects’ are used to design policies and support particular agendas, for better or worse. In a nutshell, they are:
– Nirvana concepts: underpin overarching frameworks of analysis (might never be attained, but offer a goal; are value-based, and often described as common sense, which makes it difficult to refute)
– Narratives: causal and explanatory beliefs (floods and droughts are due to deforestation, which can be stemmed with conversation efforts)
– Models: Policies or development interventions (often are implemented without consideration for context, capacity, resources available – and ignore endogenous approaches by local actors)

IWRM has been used by the authors to illustrate three types of conceptual objects of policy-making in the water sector. IWRM has provided a framework under which various interlinked narratives and models have been accommodated (p. 150).

Throughout this article, IWRM has been deconstructed to illustrate how it, in many ways, represents each of these discursive objects, or has been propped up by the use of these discursive objects. This has been, so far, the most complete deconstruction of IWRM in the literature i’ve come across, which will act as a good baseline article for providing critiques of IWRM. For example, in the discussion on Nirvana Concepts, the authors give provide an example of how IWRM was enthusiastically adopted by governments of South Africa (and Zimbabwe) to equalize water use and access between whites and blacks, but after 10 years of experience, the expected benefits have not materialized in either country (133).

Politics is a pervasive trend for the use of models, nirvana concepts and narratives. Usually vested interests, ideologies, and money (individual bonuses all the way to promotion of development agendas by agencies) all play a critical role in why certain concepts in the water sector are promoted, or certain development trajectories are taken in development of national water sectors.

The article also looks at why certain concepts emerge, spread and influence policy; what incentives exist for this promotion and spreading; and, the role of ‘paradigm maintenance’ in protection of these dominant/hegemonic concepts.

The concept of ‘epistemic communities’ is discussed, which is what Conca (2006) describes as regime formation. Epistemic communities are defined in the article as “network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area; consists of academics, decision-makers, etc who share set of normative and principled beliefs, as well as causal beliefs and cause-and-effect understandings” (143).

Implications of these discursive objects on policy making concludes the article. Both the positive aspects of these three objects, as well as the negative outcomes, are provided in this section. I found the mention of ‘discourse analysis’ interesting, as a tool for understanding epistemic communities and where their interests come from, as well as for assessing whether the tool being applied, or the narrative being used is a good ‘fit’ for the context, and whether this has implications for achieving the stated goals.

Most certainly an interesting and useful article, especially when dominant discourses are applied without sensitivity to context or consideration of updating the knowledge or thought practices behind the dominant discourse. The article argues for deconstruction of discourse, strategic and thoughtful use and application of models, questioning of narratives, understanding of power asymmetries and dynamics between actors.

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