The philosophy and principles of sustainable development offer African countries the alluring promise of being able to develop prosperous societies and economies without exhausting the natural resource-base on which these are based. However, urgent needs for social and economic relief, coupled with shortages of social, technical and economic resources, make it almost impossible for many of these countries to achieve this ideal in the short- to medium-term. Because sustainable development depends on the choices that society makes and the participative processes by which these choices are made, there is a clear need to ensure wide acceptance of the governance processes that are used in decision-making.

Here, ‘good governance’ is recognised as a complex and multi-dimensional concept that incorporates a guiding philosophy or set of operating principles, a preferred process or way that people interact with each other, and a desired situation or outcome. The ‘Trialogue Model’ of the partnership between government, civil society and science offers useful insights into the attributes of good governance and the way that this underpins and facilitates prudent resource management.

An examination of the approaches used by southern African countries to manage their water resources reveals that some SADC countries have entered a development phase that is characterised by shared systems of values and a growing alignment of national and regional policies, statutes and plans.

This is well aligned with the philosophy of good governance, which requires full commitment from stakeholders at all levels of decision-making. Ultimately, the extent to which a governance system can be regarded as ‘good’ or ‘weak’ depends on whether or not the five key principles of good governance (openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence) are explicit in every decision-making process that affects the livelihoods of stakeholders.

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