Consensus building (C5.02)


In integrated water resources management, actors from very different backgrounds with very different interests come together for inter-sectoral water policy dialogue. Consensus building is a strategy to make sure these differences do not lead to misconceptions and conflict, or to resolve conflicts in their early stages. It is a tool best suited to situations of low to medium conflict and tension. However, it can sometimes be useful where parties are in major conflict and have unsuccessfully tried legal or other high-cost approaches. The advantage of consensus building is that it creates a commitment to implementing the results of the discussions among its participants because they were part of the decision-making process. Although consensus building is being discussed here in particular relation to project level decisions, it can be done at all levels of decision-making, including policy formulation.

Consensus building starts by defining the problem rather than proposing solutions or taking positions. It focuses on interests instead of general judgements on the suitability of measures, and invites participants to identify numerous alternatives so that there is a variety of possibilities to choose from. In this step, it is important to focus on creating the alternatives without evaluating them. Before evaluation can take place, all participants should agree on principles or criteria to evaluate the alternatives with.

However, participants should always expect agreements to go through refinements. Documenting the agreements is a good strategy to reduce the risk of later misunderstandings. It also helps if participants agree on the process by which agreements can be revised and on the process by which other types of disagreements might be solved. Often times, it is possible to convince people that a project, for example, is beneficial through information and arguments, but they might still dislike the project itself and make that known. In these cases, it is important to remember the legitimacy of feelings and to focus on changing actions instead of feelings.

Associated tools are:

  • Joint training – which brings parties in conflict together to jointly learn about dispute management, consensus building or IWRM;
  • Policy dialogue – which brings stakeholders together with some end in sight, e.g. to write major policy or regulations. This follows the principle that participation in policy formulation (in a facilitated series of meetings) will yield less conflict and more rapid implementation;
  • Strategic Conflict Assessments – which can be used as early intervention systems, for intervening in established conflict and, for designing systems to prevent conflict. In situations of relatively low tension but competing interests, such as in early IWRM institutional design efforts, these assessments can be done collaboratively. They help parties to learn about each other, and create realistic expectations toward the process. Participating in strategic conflict assessments can change the views of senior officials in complex situations;
  • Interest-based negotiations – which are sometimes undertaken by unassisted individuals but more often use a neutral party to create and manage the process. Such negotiations have been successfully used in many situations, including project construction claims settlements, agreements to cost sharing and allocation formulae, regulatory implementation, operations of water infrastructure and realignment of purposes and use, and planning for IWRM.

Lessons learned

  • Consensus building is most useful in low to medium conflict situations where the parties have some familiarity with each other.
  • It is a good first step tool in new problem areas.
  • It can be used at local, regional, provincial or even national levels.
  • It is an effective tool for raising awareness of issues.
  • Independent mediator helps (see C5.03 as well).