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The World Commission on Dams' Contribution to the Broader Debate on Development Decision-Making

Posted: 22 Jan 2002  

Daniel Bradlow

University of Pretoria - Centre for Human Rights; American University - Washington College of Law


In this article, I argue that the protagonists in the sometimes bitter debate about dams that resulted in the establishment of the World Commission on Dams share common perceptions about development decision-making with the protagonists in the debates that have occurred at the local, national, and international level about such issues as natural resource and infrastructure projects, corporate relocations, globalization, and global governance. In this context, 'development decision-making' means the way in which individuals, groups and institutions decide to adopt and then implement policies, programs, and projects that affect the evolution of their own and/or other's social and physical environments.

I contend that the views of these protagonists can be divided into two basic visions of development. I call these the traditional and the modern views of development decision-making. These views differ in their understanding of the relationship between the economic, social, political, cultural, and economic aspects of development and of the way in which decisions about development policies and programs should be made. The traditional view sees development as primarily an economic process whose outputs are discrete projects and policies that are designed to achieve the highest possible level of economic growth. The modern view, on the other hand, views development as a socially, economically, politically, culturally, and environmentally integrated process. The paper explores the implications that follow from these different views of development for decision-making about development.

The Report of the World Commission of Dams is an important event in this debate over development decision-making because it is possibly the first systematic effort to develop an approach to decision-making that is explicitly based on international human rights and environmental principles, as enunciated in the key international human rights conventions and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. The paper describes the WCD's approach to decision-making and explores some of the issues that it raises. The paper ends with a discussion of some issues that are left unresolved but that are of great relevance to the debate over development decision-making.

JEL Classification: F02, O2, O13, Q4

Suggested Citation

Bradlow, Daniel, The World Commission on Dams' Contribution to the Broader Debate on Development Decision-Making. American University International Law Review, Vol. 16, No. 1531, 2001. Available at SSRN:

Daniel David Bradlow (Contact Author)

University of Pretoria - Centre for Human Rights ( email )

Private Bag X20
Hatfield 0028
South Africa

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

International Legal Studies Program
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Washington, DC 20016
United States
202-274-4205 (Phone)
202-274-4116 (Fax)


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