The ‘radical centre’ and how it applies to water management

In an interview, Peter Sharry spoke about radical centrism and how he finds this idea is valuable for his work. This article looks more closely at what radical centrism is, according to Noel Pearson, a First Nations lawyer, academic, and land rights activist. It explores how it might be applied within the context of water management.

Radical centrism, in politics, is the concept of borrowing ideas from left and right, liberal and conservative, and other aspects of politics and ideology, without sticking to one ‘side.’ Proponents of radical centrism use good ideas wherever they can be found, to create compromise and consensus, to solve social problems, and to reach consensus.

The radical centre applied to water management encourages diversity and collaboration for stakeholders who are involved in creating solutions. The principles of radical centrism encourage relationship building and compromise, especially key in working with rural and traditional populations.

What is the radical centre?

Noel Pearson explored this concept in a John Button oration, during which he also touched on leadership approaches. Pearson, in his speech, said that there are two types of leadership: structural and natural.

“Structural leadership depends upon formal political, cultural, economic or religious structures for mandate, authority, power and influence. Natural leadership depends on no institutional power or recognition: it is simply the power of human self-determination and the informal recognition of its inspiration and influence over other humans.”Noel Pearson

There are groups that hold each type of leadership, according to Pearson, and “both sides prosecute their side with a vehemence and conviction about the correctness of their own side and the folly of the other. There is much tug-of-war in the world, and tragically too little productive synthesis.”

That productive synthesis, says Pearson, is the radical centre, an “intellectual place and a real place in the dynamic political economy.”

The radical centre in water management

Peter Sharry, Director at Axiom Water Technologies, sees this productive synthesis when he works with traditional leaders.

“It’s someone who is prepared to take steps in either direction to try and bring everyone along… What’s best is if they’re impartial and a neutral identity but respected by the community.”

In Pacific countries, the radical centre could look like balancing the role of that neutral traditional leader, with the role of scientists, stakeholders, and other people involved in water management from a more bureaucratic standpoint. All people in a leadership role, whether traditional or vested, must be willing to take steps toward one another for the collective good of the population.

We see this in traditional communities that are willing to implement modern technology for water safety and access, using a structured framework to ensure that community members can drink, bathe, and otherwise use water safely. In the same scenario, the parties who are involved in bringing this technology to traditional communities are willing to include cultural knowledge and leadership in designing, implementing, monitoring and operating water systems.

A balanced relationship between cultural, economic, and environmental interests is key to finding the ‘radical centre’ for sustainable water management practices. In turn, the key to achieving this balanced relationship is making sure that community members feel they are heard, understood, and relevant. When everyone involved is a stakeholder, they are more likely to be responsible, educated users of water, which is vital to the long-term success of any water management project.

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