Thumbnail Image - Blue Nile Countries on a Map (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia)

In our last post, we described the value of a carefully structured Stakeholder Assessment as a tool for identifying relevant stakeholders, as well as their interests, in a conflict. It can also be used to identify facts in contention or missing information– i.e. ‘what the parties know or think they know about the problem?’ In some instances, this clarifies what information gaps need to be filled to enable parties to reach an informed agreement. In others, it can allow the parties to identify where one source of knowledge (e.g. local community) might contradict another source (e.g. scientific, or ‘expert,’ community). Finally, it might highlight discrepancies in the way scientific or technical experts think about a problem.

In an earlier post, we pointed to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile (also known as Eastern Nile) River as an evolving water and diplomatic dispute. Construction of the GERD is nearly complete and, despite concerted efforts to resolve the disagreements that have emerged, the three Blue Nile riparians – Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia – cannot agree on the likely downstream impacts of the dam or, relatedly, on how best to fill and operate the dam. Resolution of the dispute has been hindered by the inherent uncertainty of how hydrologic systems work (e.g. variable interannual flow) as well as what the effects of climate change might be. Thus, the question is ‘How can this or any other water disputes be resolved when there is disagreement on the underlying ‘facts’?’

One alternative way of handling such disagreements is a process known as Joint Fact-Finding (JFF). This post will describe how JFF works, highlighting the dynamics as illustrated by the dispute over the GERD, and suggest why and how a well-managed JFF process can help.

What is JFF and when should it be used?

Joint fact-finding (JFF) is a collaborative process, often managed by a professional facilitator, in which experts, policymakers and stakeholders work together to gather and analyze scientific or technical data. JFF involves face-to-face dialogue and working towards consensus by continually narrowing areas of scientific disagreement (McCreary et al. 2001). It should be part of a larger collaborative decision-making process in which the results of JFF are one input into the development of recommendations (made by stakeholders) to policymakers.

As mentioned in our last post, ‘moderately structured’ problems in which there is high agreement over values/norms, but high disagreement over science, would likely be good candidates for a joint fact-finding process. JFF could also be a helpful way to build trust and enhance relationships among parties who have a long history of disagreement and mistrust (Ehrmann and Stinson 1999). In some instances, a decision-making body may have already decided to commission a technical study (such as an environmental impact assessment) and decided to involve stakeholders in that effort (i.e. including defining the problem and setting the scope of the inquiry). Such studies can be framed as JFF processes. Parties may even choose to conduct a JFF process even when they have all the facts just to ensure that the public and the groups they represent all have confidence in the facts or forecasts that are being used as a basis for decision-making or dispute resolution (Matsuura and Schenk 2017).

Will JFF resolve disputes?

JFF will not, in and of itself, resolve disputes or even reveal an incontestable ‘truth.’ In the case of the Blue Nile River, for example, no amount of joint fact-finding will make clear how much water Egypt and Sudan should be able to count on from the Nile while the GERD is being filled (Siam and Eltahir 2017). This is irreducible uncertainty – more scientific analysis is not going to eliminate it. Furthermore, interpretations of any findings (e.g., such as what is an ‘acceptable’ level of risk) will vary, even when the results of a scientific study are accepted as reasonable.

JFF will, however, narrow gaps in the parties’ understanding of the ‘facts,’ and allow stakeholders to engage in collaborative problem-solving drawing on a shared understanding of the underlying problem. Due to the uncertainty inherent in most dynamic situations (e.g., water management), Schenk (2017) suggests that the best we can hope to achieve through joint fact-finding is to identify ‘facts for now’ and ‘facts for use.’ ‘Facts for now’ are ‘contextually appropriate, specific and more or less ephemeral’ (Schenk 2017). As the name implies, ‘facts for now,’ recognizes the changing nature of many complex situations and the need for adaptive management informed by ongoing data collection, data sharing and joint analysis. The second category, ‘facts for use,’ includes information or forecasts that stakeholders can use to make decisions. These facts are recognized as being imperfect, but are temporarily accepted to allow some action to proceed.

The end goal of joint fact-finding is not to establish ‘the truth,’ but to arrive at an agreed-upon understanding that is both scientifically sound and publically credible so that stakeholders can engage in collaborative problem-solving (Karl et al. 2007). JFF can also help to legitimize the role of involving stakeholders in research, analysis and decision making (Susskind and Cruikshank 1987; Ehrmann and Stinson 1999; Schenk et al. 2016).

Essential Steps of Joint Fact-Finding

The JFF process can be broken down into six essential steps: (i) assess the need for JFF; (ii) convene the stakeholders; (iii) define the scope of the study; (iv) conduct the study; (v) evaluate the results of the study; and (vi) communicate the results of the JFF process (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Essential Steps of the Joint Fact Finding (source: Consensus Building Institute)

Figure 1. Essential Steps of the Joint Fact Finding (source: Consensus Building Institute)


Step 1. Assess the need for JFF: Typically, the decision-making agency (or group of agencies) decides whether or not there is a scientific or technical issue that requires more clarity and, if so, takes on the role of the convener. As the convener, it helps identify stakeholders, calls the meetings and provides financial (and sometimes technical) support throughout the JFF process.

Although the convener plays a crucial role in starting and supporting the JFF process, the process should be managed by a professional facilitator to help establish a neutral and inclusive process. The professional facilitator should conduct a pre-JFF assessment that identifies the stakeholders, information and knowledge gaps, and stakeholders’ incentives to participate in JFF. The convener and facilitator will use this to assess the need for JFF.

Step 2. Convene the stakeholders: If the convener and facilitator decide that JFF may be useful, they convene a representative group of stakeholders to be involved throughout the JFF process. The professional facilitator will help this group draft ground rules, roles, responsibilities and a timeline. The group will also review existing knowledge to generate general scientific or technical questions that they would like addressed through JFF.

Step 3. Define the scope of the study: The representative group defines the scope and objectives of JFF and translates general questions into research questions. By the end of this stage, the group should agree on (i) key research questions; (ii) the analytic methods to be used; (iii) the type of expert input required; and (iv) a timeframe in which all the work will be completed (Susskind et al. 2017).

Step 4. Conduct the study: The representative group will also define the sources of data (e.g. indigenous, local, scientific) that should be included before the experts (who may or may not be stakeholders) conduct the study.

Step 5. Evaluate the results of the study: Afterwards, the experts communicate their findings to the representative group, identify any remaining sources of uncertainty, and clarify their confidence in their findings. They may also compare their findings to existing research to explain potential discrepancies and/or highlight overlap.

The results of a JFF process should be combined into a single technical report. Assuming the stakeholders understand and accept the results of the studies, they should use the findings to help inform their policy recommendations.

Step 6. Communicate the results of the JFF process: In the final step, stakeholder representatives communicate the findings of JFF and their recommendations to the public and to policymakers. In some cases, it is not enough for the public to simply be informed of the policy recommendations; rather, this could be the first step of a longer consensus-building process in which the larger group of stakeholders has an opportunity to collaborate with the smaller group on developing a final set of policy recommendations.

Obstacles to resolving transboundary water disputes: Case study of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

Figure 2. Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

The construction of the GERD in Ethiopia (Figure 2), announced in March 2011, almost immediately became a source of sharp disagreement among the Blue Nile riparians (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia). The effort of these countries to conduct technical studies (see Salman 2016) of the potential socioeconomic impacts of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on downstream countries highlights many of the obstacles to resolving water disputes.

One of the conditions that contributed to escalating tensions on the Blue Nile was that Ethiopia conducted its own technical studies without consulting the other riparians. Egypt and Sudan, the two downstream countries, challenged the results of the Ethiopian studies, arguing that the new dam would significantly reduce the Nile’s flow.

After several months of impasse, at Ethiopia’s suggestion, the three countries agreed to establish an International Panel of Experts (IPoE). The IPoE, comprising two experts from each of the three countries and four international experts (ten in all), was convened in November 2011. They reviewed all available project documents and, in May 2013, submitted a report suggesting further studies that should be undertaken to gauge the potential impacts of the GERD.

Egypt argued that construction of the dam should stop until after the studies would be completed. Ethiopia countered that the IPoE did not recommend a suspension of construction. Despite efforts to reach agreement through further tripartite ministerial meetings, the three countries disagreed about whether or not construction on the GERD should continue and who should conduct the future studies.

Ideally, technical studies should help inform a decision-making process and, therefore, precede any planned action. This only works if all the stakeholders are committed to working together to mitigate future risk. This commitment is often a function of their interdependence – their dependence on each other to achieve their interests (Innes and Booher 2010). Egypt and Sudan’s position as the downstream countries increases their dependence on Ethiopia. It is therefore in their best interest to remain committed to a cooperative process. Ethiopia arguably has much more to gain from regional cooperation than from unilateral action (Whittington et al. 2014). However, it also has the means and incentive to construct the GERD, even in the absence of regional cooperation. Therefore, whether Egypt and Sudan are satisfied by the technical studies or not, Ethiopia will continue construction of the GERD.

Ultimately, the dispute over the GERD is not a technical one, but a reflection of the lack of trust among the Eastern Nile countries. This lack of trust gets in the way of cooperative efforts. Even sharing basic data (e.g., river flow rates) can become a major obstacle to resolving a water dispute[i].

Since the release of the IPoE’s recommendation in May 2013, the process of coming to agreement on which studies should be conducted, what data will be used, and which consultants should be hired to conduct the studies took three and a half years.

The benefit of conducting these additional technical studies is questionable, given that they will not be completed until after construction of the GERD is finished in the coming year. This is problematic because the three countries are relying on these studies to negotiate terms of co-operation for all the dams on the Blue Nile – the GERD (Ethiopia), Roseires (Sudan), Merowe (Sudan), and High Aswan (Egypt) dams.

In summary, the dispute over the GERD illustrates how JFF can support joint action but cannot, on its own, resolve water disputes due to a number of obstacles:

  • Stakeholders may challenge the legitimacy of technical studies;
  • Differences in interdependence may translate into differences in commitment to cooperation;
  • Lack of trust may inhibit stakeholders’ willingness to share data;
  • Reaching agreement on ‘why’ and ‘how’ studies should be conducted can be a time-consuming and expensive process; and
  • Stakeholders will vary in their technical capacity and interpretation of a dispute, thereby making any attempts to engage the non-technical community in collaborative problem-solving more challenging.

We believe that a JFF process managed by a professional mediator may help where other diplomatic efforts have failed.

How can a well-managed JFF process overcome these obstacles?

Even when there are very good reasons to undertake JFF, there are many pre-conditions for success (McCreary et al. 2001; Karl et al. 2007; Ellen et al. 2017; Matsuura and Schenk 2017). While this is not the full list, we will highlight the pre-conditions we believe are most crucial and explain how a professional facilitator can help.

Stakeholders should be involved throughout the JFF process. Studies such as environmental impact assessments (EIAs), social impact assessments (SIAs), cost benefit analyses (CBA), and risk assessments could be considered products of joint fact-finding, but the majority of the time these studies are conducted by consultants, sometimes with limited input from stakeholders (Susskind et al. 2017). This can become problematic down the line if/when stakeholders with conflicting interests interpret the results of those studies differently (Ehrmann and Stinson 1999) or challenge the integrity of the studies. One way to reduce the risk of some stakeholders challenging the legitimacy of a technical study is by including all stakeholders from the very beginning of a JFF process.

For JFF to be publicly credible, stakeholders need to be involved from the very start of the process to decide: (i) which questions need to be answered; (ii) what data is required to answer these questions; (iii) how the data will be collected; (iv) how the data will be analyzed and interpreted; and (v) the strategies that will be used to share the analysis with others to help inform policy (Susskind et al. 2017). Stakeholder involvement in framing the questions and throughout the JFF process helps ensure transparency and fairness, as well as the integration of expert knowledge with local and cultural knowledge.

Stakeholders should be interdependent and have strong incentives to continue actively participating throughout the entire JFF process. Any collaborative process is only as strong as the participants’ commitment to that process. Interdependency – or each stakeholder’s dependence on other stakeholders – will increase stakeholders’ commitment (Innes and Booher 2010). The professional facilitator and convener can also play an important role in actively reminding participants of the benefits of remaining committed to the process. They may, for example, remind participants of the possibility of using the results of JFF to overcome stalemate in a broader collaborative process.

Parties should share relevant information. The scientific and technical validity of these studies depends on stakeholders sharing all relevant data throughout the research process. This is an extremely challenging (but necessary) condition for JFF to be successful as, in some cases, sharing data is often seen as tantamount to weakening one’s own position in a dispute. A professional facilitator can be especially helpful in situations in which there is a high degree of mistrust among stakeholders and/or the convener because stakeholders may be more willing to share data and information with a professional neutral than with other stakeholders (who have a stake in the outcome).

Adequate resources should be available to support a timely JFF process. JFF can be expensive. Typically, the convener provides the financial resources although, in some cases, the stakeholders may also contribute (to the best of their ability). Furthermore, JFF has to be undertaken in a timely manner – in other words, the technical studies need to be conducted in time to help inform policy decisions. A professional facilitator will take time and resources into account when helping stakeholders develop a timeline for the JFF process during Step 2 (Convene the Stakeholders).

Technical information should be communicated in a way that allows non-technical stakeholders to participate fully in discussions. One of the strongest arguments against including stakeholders in JFF is that they often have different levels of knowledge and technical backgrounds and are therefore unable to fully (or equally) participate in JFF. We believe, however, that stakeholder knowledge (even as an input) is critical to the success of JFF because it may contradict, supplement and/or validate ‘expert’ knowledge. It is then up to the experts, facilitator and convener, to help translate the results of technical studies to stakeholders in a way that helps inform their policy recommendations.

A professional facilitator that has a technical understanding of the issue can help stakeholders by asking experts additional questions that may help identify areas within the research in which experts made non-objective judgements that could affect the results (Susskind et al. 2017). For example, the length of time considered when calculating the potential positive or negative impacts of a given policy or project in an environmental impact assessment is arguably a non-objective judgement. A professional facilitator that understands how cost-benefit analysis is conducted can ask clarifying questions about the length of time considered or discount rate applied in these calculations. By identifying and ‘unpacking’ the string of non-objective judgements that go into any scientific or technical study, the facilitator can help the parties better understand (and/or challenge) the results of the joint fact-finding process.

It is unlikely that all these preconditions will be met, but we believe that the procedural design of JFF – specifically, inclusion of stakeholders and process management by a professional mediator – can help overcome many of the obstacles common to transboundary water disputes.


Many water management problems are complex because natural, societal, and political conditions are hard to anticipate. What may be true at the time, may not be true in the future. Additionally, there may be some level of irreducible uncertainty that makes planning ahead difficult. While JFF may not be enough to resolve disputes or eliminate uncertainty, it can lead to the preparation of a base of mutually acceptable facts and forecasts that can be used in collaborative decision-making. In other words, JFF can be a useful tool when decision-makers seem ‘stuck’ due to uncertainty and complexity arising from interactions of variables, processes, actors and institutions.

However, JFF alone is not enough. We believe that, given the increasing level of uncertainty related to natural variability, climate change, and competing demand for water, JFF should be one step of a broader collaborative adaptive water management process. In the case of the Nile, for example, a recent study suggests that annual flow could, on average, increase by 10 to 15 percent (Siam and Eltahir 2017). While this may seem like a good thing for countries like Egypt that are extremely dependent on the Nile, the study suggests that annual variability in flow could also increase by 50 percent. In other words, scientists expect more frequent floods and droughts, especially in the Eastern Nile region.

The distribution of the potential impacts of extreme weather events for the riparian countries in the Nile basin is unclear. The resilience of the region as a whole may very well depend on collaborative approaches to water management. Therefore, we believe that any long-term transboundary water management on the Nile will require flexible, adaptive mechanisms that can take new, and changing, (expert and stakeholder) information into account. Although inclusion of stakeholders in decision-making is often expensive and time-consuming, we believe it to be necessary in helping to ensure equitable and sustainable water management outcomes.


[i] Although the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (i.e. 1997 UN Watercourses Convention) calls for ‘regular exchange of data and information’ (Article 9) related to watercourses (including hydrological, meteorological, hydrogeological and ecological data), the Eastern Nile countries are not signatories.


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Yasmin Zaerpoor

Yasmin Zaerpoor is a PhD candidate in the Environmental Policy and Planning group in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP).

Larry Susskind

Larry Susskind is the founder of CBI and Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Vice-Chair for Instruction at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

Shafiqul Islam

Shafiqul Islam is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Water Diplomacy, and the Director of the Water Diplomacy Initiative at Tufts University. Follow on Twitter: @ShafikIslam