New Developments on Development: Part IV

August 30, 2018


This feature is the fourth in an installment of four highlighting Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellows studying development. These scholars explore development’s theoretical roots and how it has evolved from its neo-liberal conception after World War II to its predominant focus on infrastructure today.

New Developments on Development: Part I | New Developments on Development: Part II |New Developments on Development: Part IIINew Developments on Development: Part IV


Bernadette Adjei loves water.

Adjei has been the Chief Legal Officer at the Water Resources Commission of Ghana for 12 years and represented Ghana at the United Nation’s Working Group on Integrated Water Resources Management in 2013.  She is currently in the final year of her Ph.D. program at the University of Ghana, where she is writing a dissertation entitled, “Legal Pluralism and Water Resources Governance in Ghana: Outcomes of Formal and Customary Management Frameworks.”

“I love the rain. I love water. I have always been interested in the environment,” Adjei said, as evidenced by her focus on environmental law for her Masters of Law degree from the University of Nottingham.

Water, however, presents unique challenges in the study of natural resource governance.  Unlike stationary resources, such as land, minerals, and forests, Adjei notes that “water resources have dimensions of space and time” that are more pronounced. “Water flows, there are seasonality issues, and there are a multitude of actors who interact with the water.”

River basins, for example, can lie on international boundaries, raising questions of international law, scientific cooperation, and potentially contradictory development objectives. These problems can be exacerbated in areas such as the Volta Basinwhich crosses Ghana into Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin, and Malisince “countries in West Africa have different languages, different cultures, and different orientations of development,” she said.

Even within Ghana’s national borders, regulatory systems can become convoluted. “Nowhere is there only one system, but some seem to dominate,” Adjei said, referring to legal pluralism, or the presence of multiple, overlapping legal systems present in a single political entity or population. “There are two systems of law governing marriage in Ghana,” Adjei explained, referring to the country’s customary and common legal systems, the later which emerged during colonialism.

In Ghana, studies of legal pluralism as they pertain to water governance are lacking, according to Adjei. “It has not been well studied to figure out how actors come together,” she said. “There are gaps in legal pluralism scholarship, especially with different resources [and understanding] water as this unbounded thing.”

Using a qualitative and quantitative survey approach, Adjei is working to bridge those gaps in scholarly understanding. Informed by her years at Ghana’s Water Resource Commission, she said that, to better understand resources, you have to “better understand the people—look at how resources and their governance impact people.” Along these lines, one facet of her research has been engaging with local law enforcement personnel in an effort to understand patterns of enforcement for new water use regulations. “As much as the [Water Resource] Commission and legal department seek to enforce our regulations, we can not do it in a vacuum. These are laws with criminal sanctions attached.”

But Adjei’s years in the public sector haven’t always had a positive impact on her work as an academic. “Sometimes, you are so close to an issue that you don’t see the broader picture,” she said, referring to feedback she has received from social science mentors during her dissertation research and writing process. “I’ve been in the sector so long, my frustration is both an inspiration and hindrance,” she said.

However, entering her third year as a Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellow, she says that the methodological guidance and positive feedback she received from economists, social scientists, and statisticians has given her confidence about her academic work.

“The SSRC has been a partner throughout this journey. When I finish and submit my dissertation on time,” she said, it will be a testament to the “value of the work I’ve done.”