Complex problems are connected with many competing and often conflicting values, interests, and tools. These problems can’t be addressed through simply applying dogmatic principles or a deal-making purely pragmatic approach.

Because these problems are interconnected and interdependent, a final solution can’t be pre-specified. Any intervention to a complex problem requires attention to both principles and pragmatism. Strict adherence to principles without pragmatism is often not actionable; pure pragmatism exercised without guiding principles is not sustainable.

The three articles below share some thoughts on principled pragmatism and the application of this philosophy to framing and approaching complex water problems. This is the beginning of our plans to present more on principled pragmatism as a framing for finding actionable solution pathways for complex water problems.

A Lincoln for Today: What would Lincoln do for Flint on his 207th Birthday? Shafiqul Islam. LinkedIn Pulse. 15 February 2016.

“Lincoln continually assessed political context with a goal in mind: to logically order principles to best achieve them in practice. As Smith puts it: To Lincoln, there are things — like taxes — that are subjected to deal-making while others — like human dignity — that are not. On slavery as an institution, Lincoln was prepared to negotiate; on slavery as a principle, he would not.

“Not all principles are equally important in all situations. Yet, principles are important and can’t be ignored completely irrespective of contexts. If we do, we fall along the slippery slope where “end justifies the means.” When we say, “we will not compromise our principles” to explain our opposition to a public policy; we are confounding two meanings of compromise. A pragmatic compromise – a settlement of differences in interests – is not the same as compromising one’s guiding principles. Compromise over interests is possible and actionable while compromising principles is not sustainable.”

A path of ‘principled pragmatism. Nahela Nowshin, The Daily Star (Bangladesh). 28 January 2017.

“Complex problems – addressing supply-demand gap in the dry season in southwestern region or providing equitable access of water in the slums of Dhaka or creating sustainable development pathways for a growing population in a changing climate – are connected with many competing and often conflicting values, interests, and tools… Any intervention will require an attention to both principles and pragmatism. 

“..We need to continually assess the context of the problem with a goal in mind: to logically order principles to best achieve them in practice. There are issues like agriculture versus aquaculture in the southwest that are subjected to deal-making while others like sustainability of Sundarbans or equitable access of water to local community are not.

Addressing water scarcity. Shafiqul Islam. The Daily Star (Bangladesh). 27 February 2017.

“This notion of principled pragmatism is what we need to address complex problems of our time. For example, water availability during the dry season may be the limiting factor to ensure access to water for rivers flowing from India to Bangladesh. Mismatches between values, choice of tools, and disparity in scales usually make water management decisions complex with no clear-cut solution.

“In such situations, a principled pragmatic approach – that can address mismatch between values (Is water more important to keep a port functional than sustaining the Sundarbans?) or choice of tools (Is building the Ganges barrage better than implementing high-efficiency irrigation systems?) – grounded in translating global norms in terms of local understanding and the capacity to act on them is our way forward…

“Given the informal nature of water economy, power inequalities and domination of elite interests at the local level decentralisation of decision-making and operations and maintenance of water projects through local government institutions – as opposed to through independently commissioned water management organisations – is likely to be more sustainable in Bangladesh. The key issue is to recognise that working only through public sector organisations can’t provide a sustainable mode to operate and maintain these projects over time. Bangladesh needs to explore and adopt a systematic approach where resources are made available only if investment design includes continuous capacity building through learning by doing, and post-investment monitoring protocols for adaptive maintenance.”


In a colloquial sense, pragmatism is often taken to suggest practical, opportunistic, and expedient approaches at the expense of principles. This perception appears to be rooted in the dichotomy between “being pragmatic” and “being ideological”. Our notion of principled pragmatism attempts to get away from this duality by focusing on how to make our ideas clear and actionable. In other words, how to connect our thoughts to action given the context, constraints, and capacity. We do not start with a big idea and then apply it; instead, we plan to use ideas as tools to improve our practices. In other words, practice informs the theory by focusing on the space where we are now. We can measure where we are by how far away we are from where we would like to be; or, we can measure how far we have come from where we have been. Neither measurement is perfect: we need both. Our principled pragmatism – rooted in equity and sustainability as guiding principles for water management – approach attempts to synthesize symbolic aspirations with realistic assessment to chart a trajectory that can move us from the world of seemingly infinite possibilities to actionable subset of implementable solutions.

Is principled pragmatism a viable framework for complex water or other natural resource problems? And if so, what are the potential difficulties in or barriers to implementation? Are there existing examples of resource disputes viewed or addressed through a principled pragmatists lens?

Please share your thoughts with us in the comments here, via email, or social media.


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

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