Kelembagaan DAS

Ruth Meinzen-Dick and Anna Knox


Ruth Meinzen-Dick and Anna Knox1

1 Ruth Meinzen-Dick is Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Anna Knox is Research Analyst at the International Food Policy research Institute. Acknowledgement: Michael Kirk, Tidiane Ngaido, and Douglas Vermillion provided valuable comments on an earlier draft. We are also grateful to the Arun Agrawal, Elinor Ostrom, and Robert Pomeroy for the background provided by their resource sector review papers, and Walter Huppert provided written comments. We assume responsibility for any errors in this paper.


The past decade has witnessed a major policy trend of devolving control over natural resources from government agencies to user groups. This type of devolution has not only cut across countries from Asia, Africa, and the Americas, but also across natural resource sectors, encompassing water (especially irrigation), forests, rangelands, fisheries, and wildlife.

The process of devolution of resource management involves programs that shift responsibility and authority from the state to non-governmental bodies—a “rolling back the boundaries of the state (Vedeld 1996).” Devolution programs go by a range of names. When control over resources is transferred more or less completely to local user groups, it is often referred to as Community-Based Resource Management (CBRM). In these cases, the government generally withdraws from a role, and either cuts or redeploys agency staff. When the state retains a large role in resource management, in conjunction with an expanded role for users, it may be referred to as joint management or co-management. However, these are often not clear-cut, with most cases involving some form of interaction between the state and user groups. Specific terms vary by sector and country. For example in irrigation, Irrigation Management Transfer generally refers to programs that go farther in divesting state agencies of their role, while Participatory Irrigation Management programs seek to increase user involvement, usually as a supplement to the state’s role. Joint Forest Management and Fisheries Co- Management are other examples of programs that transfer  responsibility for some management tasks to user groups, in conjunction with state agencies.2

Devolution is often part of a number of related policy reforms, in which central government agencies transfer rights and responsibilities to more localized institutions,3 as illustrated in Figure 1.


2 For reviews of experience with Community-Based Resource Management, see Murombedzi 1998; Uphoff 1998; for Irrigation Management Transfer see Subramanian, Jagannathan, and Meinzen- Dick 1997; Vermillion 1996; for Fisheries Comanagement see Jentoft and McCay 1995; Pomeroy et al. 1999; Hanna 1998; for Joint Forest Management and similar approaches, see Ostrom 1999, as well as the papers in this volume.
3 These different types of reforms are often referred to under the broad heading of decentralization or devolution. For discussions of such reforms, see Agrawal 1999; van Zyl, Kirsten, and Binswanger 1996; Carney and Farrington 1998; Ostrom, Schroeder, and Wynn 1993; Rondinelli, McCulloch, and Johnson 1989; and Vedeld 1996. For an analysis of the types of institution involved, see Ribot 1999; Uphoff 1998. While the same broad reforms are described in many sources, terminology used is not always consistent.


Figure 1: Devolution in the context of decentralization and other institutional reforms

Deconcentration, in which decision-making authority is transferred to lower-level units of a bureaucracy, or government line agency, represents the least fundamental change, because authority remains with the same type of institution, and accountability is ultimately still upward to the central government, which is sometimes taken to represent society at large (Agrawal and Ribot 1999).

Decentralization transfers both decision-making authority and payment responsibility to lower levels of government. Although still within the government, it provides a stronger role for local bodies, which are presumed to have greater accountability to the local populace, including both users of the resource and others who live in the area.

Devolution, which is the focus of our attention here, involves the transfer of rights and responsibilities to user groups at the local level. These organizations are accountable to their membership, usually those who depend on the resource, but do not represent others in the local community, nor society at large (Ribot 1999).

Privatization broadly refers to transfer from the public sector to private groups or individuals. This can include non-profit service organizations (grassroots or external NGOs) and for-profit firms (Uphoff 1998). While the private sector can be taken to include user groups, in this paper we limit the discussion of privatization to transfer to individuals or firms, who are accountable to their shareholders, and NGOs, who are accountable to their donors.

Behind all these trends is the broad principle of subsidiarity, i.e. that decision making should be devolved to the lowest appropriate level. Within this, transfers of authority to lower levels of government (deconcentration and decentralization) represent vertical subsidiarity, while transfers to non-governmental institutions (user groups or private firms) represents a horizontal dimension of subsidiarity (Döring 1997).

Our concern in this paper is with the transfer of responsibility and control over natural resources from the state to user groups. However, the types of reforms illustrated in Figure 1 also draw attention to the fact that devolution does not take place in isolation. There are a number of institutional actors involved in natural resource management: government bureaucracies, local government bodies, and the private sector, as well as user groups. The structure of interactions between these is important.

The stated objectives and underlying reasons for devolution policies are at least as diverse as the program names. However, it is possible to identify a number of recurring themes:

The first is recognition of the limited effectiveness of the state in managing natural resources, especially at the local level. Government agencies have difficulty in monitoring the use of extensive forest or rangeland areas, or of constantly moving irrigation flows or mobile fish populations. The state may pass rules governing the use of resources, but if it cannot enforce them, the rules have little meaning. In contrast with the apparent deficiencies of agency management of resources, there have been numerous studies of common property management regimes effectively governing these same resources.4 Some of these studies have even shown that colonial and post-colonial state involvement has undermined local institutions that were managing the resources.


4 For examples, see Baland and Platteau 1996; Bromley, ed. 1992; Ostrom 1990; and the extensive bibliography of common property resource management at

Socioeconomic research, including ethnographic studies and models, has found that local users can have an advantage over government agents for several reasons. First, local users often have intimate knowledge of the resource. This is especially important where the resource is highly variable over space and time. By living and working in the area, users may also have a comparative advantage over government agents in monitoring resource use and rule compliance. Furthermore, because their livelihoods depend on the resource, local users are often assumed to have the greatest incentives to maintain the resource base over time. With growing pressures to use resources more efficiently, equitably, and sustainably, optimism that communities or user groups may be able to manage the resources more effectively than government agencies forms the basis for many programs that attempt to create or recreate local common property management regimes (World Bank 1996).

Interest in devolution to user groups has coincided with greater emphasis on public participation and democratization, which seek the involvement of citizens affected by programs, for social goals of empowering local people as well as goals of improving program performance. Devolution policies are consistent with these trends because they transfer decision-making from government “outsiders” to users who are directly affected. Ideologies of privatization have similarly challenged the role of the state as owner and manager of resources.

Fiscal crises of governments and ensuing economic reform policies have given the greatest impetus to policies of devolution. The salaries alone for government staff to manage resources can add up to large amounts, even without travel and other budgets of state agencies. Continuing to provide this over large areas of irrigated land, forests, rangelands, inshore or coastal fisheries often becomes prohibitive as states face up to resource constraints. If this by itself does not push governments to devolve responsibility for resource management, donors who are approached to bail out a government in a debt crisis are likely to push for such reforms, either out of a belief that users can be more effective managers, a commitment to participation, democratization, or privatization, or fiscal responsibility.

Although the theoretical advantages of user management have been convincing and the impetus for devolution policies strong, the actual outcomes of devolution programs in various sectors and countries have been mixed. The stated objectives of such programs in terms of positive impact on resource productivity, equity among stakeholders, poverty alleviation, and organizational and environmental sustainability are often not met. Resources have not always been used more efficiently than under state management, nor have the benefits been distributed equitably. In some cases the resource base has been depleted. Experience has shown that the emergence of strong enough local management cannot be automatically assumed.5


5 In a recent study of major canal irrigation systems in India, Meinzen-Dick, Raju, and Gulati (2000) found informal collective action to maintain the canals in 19 of 48 sites; Pomeroy et al. (1999) found spontaneous development of organizations to manage fisheries in only 20 percent of sites in the Philippines (see also Vedeld 1996).

This paper is intended as an overview of issues to set the stage for a more detailed examination of devolution in each sector, not as a comprehensive review of all aspects of devolution. We present a broad conceptual framework for identifying factors that contribute to (or hinder) effective devolution programs, with particular emphasis on the role of collective action and property rights. The first section after this introduction lays out what we mean by these two concepts, and how they relate to devolution of natural resource management. This is followed by a discussion of the roles, incentives, and capacities of resource user organizations as they relate to other government and private institutions. The concluding section draws implications for devolution policies.



Programs to devolve natural resource management are generally based on the assumption that users will take on the roles formerly assigned to the state. This requires some form of collective action to coordinate individuals’ activities; to develop rules for resource use; to monitor compliance with the rules and sanction violators; and to mobilize the necessary cash, labor, or material resources.

What do we mean by collective action? The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology defines collective action as: “action taken by a group (either directly or on its behalf through an organization) in pursuit of members’ perceived shared interests” (Marshall 1998). This implies a conscious working together, such as in investing in a resource or excluding “outsiders” from using it.

Our definition is intentionally broad, and includes both “primary groups” in which members know each other, as well as “secondary groups” with a larger size or more formal structure. Collective action which is sustained over time usually also includes rules and decision-making structures. In the case of natural resource management, this might include rules on using (or refraining from using) a resource, as well as processes for monitoring, sanctioning, and dispute resolution (Ostrom 1992). In primary groups and the actions of each individual are under (close) observation by the others and the major governance mechanisms are solidarity, reciprocity, and social pressure based on common norms and values. In secondary groups, decisions can no longer be taken only by group consensus, so there are representatives to act on behalf of the group. Note that collective action does not necessarily require an organization, although organizations may make collective action more effective or efficient for some tasks (Meinzen-Dick, Raju, and Gulati 2000).

Because of their spatial scale, most irrigation systems, forests, rangelands, and fisheries cannot be managed at the individual or household level (Knox McCulloch, Meinzen-Dick, and Hazell 1998). They require some form of coordinated regulation. This may be provided by state agencies (with greater or lesser efficacy). However, the withdrawal of the state leaves a management vacuum unless local collective action is available to manage the resources.6,7


6 The alternative, of carving up the resources into individual holdings that are privatized, is often not feasible for common pool resources such as discussed in this paper. Each unit of the resource has a great deal of internal variation (Thompson and Wilson 1994), and is interdependent with other units, making it difficult to provide all claimants and users with a viable piece of the resource. This poses serious problems for individualization policies, as demonstrated by externally-induced programs to divide up and privatize rangelands in Kenya and Botswana (Kirk 1998; Lane and Moorehead 1995; Peters 1994).

7 In transforming economies, the withdrawal of the state from old collectives based on control and command leaves a particularly marked management vacuum unless voluntary collective action emerges (see Mearns 1996).

A further reason that collective action is needed is that there are generally multiple uses, as well as multiple users, of these natural resources. Irrigation systems are used not only for field irrigation but also for domestic purposes, fishing, livestock, and home gardens (Bakker et al. 1999); forests are used for kindling, fodder, resins and other “minor forest products” as well as timber (Dewees and Scherr 1996); the same land may be used for crops, a few trees, and grazing by different groups or in different seasons (Swallow et al. 1997). Many of these “secondary” uses have high economic value or are essential to the livelihood strategies of various types of households. Outside approaches that focus on resource management to maximize a single use are not likely to be as appropriate in these situations as rules that are locally developed through negotiation between different users (Steins and Edwards 1999). Local collective action can be instrumental in finding rules and allocation of the resource between different users in a way that is seen as equitable by the users themselves. There are therefore equity as well as productivity arguments for collective action in natural resource management.

Despite the importance of collective action for resource management, it cannot be assumed into existence. The very notion of a single, identifiable “community” for “community-based resource management” may be a fallacy where users are from diverse social backgrounds and economic position (Agrawal 1997). Although there are examples of strong collective action, it is not a universal institution. In many cases, “customary” resource management institutions have been undermined or replaced by state management or eroded by internal divisions or market forces, and will not automatically spring up again in the wake of the state’s withdrawal.

A critical question, then, for devolution programs, is: under what conditions will  collective action emerge and be strong enough to manage natural resources? Considerable research has been devoted to this topic.8 While there are no universal, definitive answers, a number of factors can be identified as increasing the likelihood of collective resource management. These include characteristics of the resource or the group of users, such as:

  • returns to the resource and importance of the resource for local people’s livelihoods;
  • users have a long time horizon and relatively low discount rate for future benefits;
  • size of the management units is large enough that they cannot be captured by individuals, but not so large that they cannot be monitored by the group;
  • a history of cooperation and networks among group members (often referred to as “social capital”);
  • local social structure in which divisions are not too serious or disruptive of cooperation (Vermillion 1996; Baland and Platteau 1998);
  • local leadership with the confidence of the members, and that takes an interest in natural resources.


8 For examples, see Baland and Platteau 1996; Ostrom 1999; Tang 1992; Wade 1994.

While these factors are useful in predicting whether or not cooperation will emerge, they are often not factors that are amenable to external influence. There is therefore a  question of what can be done to increase the likelihood of cooperation in the context of devolution programs. Two basic strategies involve employing institutional organizers as catalysts for collective action, and giving attention to the “enabling environment” (especially the legal framework for local organizations).

Institutional Organizers

Developing collective action is not easy. In many cases there are high transaction costs in organizing, and members must trust each other. Leaders play a crucial role because they bear a large share of these transaction costs, and can provide a catalytic role in getting others to cooperate. Where local leadership does not emergespontaneously, trained community organizers can facilitate the process, by explaining  the advantages of organizing, providing the initial leadership and identifying others in the community that can take over.

Recognizing the importance of collective action to take over resource management from the state, many devolution programs have devoted considerable attention to group formation. For example, early irrigation management transfer programs in the Philippines and Sri Lanka used institutional organizers (Bagadion and Korten 1991; Uphoff 1992). These staff were charged with presenting the idea of organizing to take over management of irrigation systems (or local sub-systems) to the farmers and assisting them through the process of forming an organization, selecting leaders, developing rules, and initiating the work on the system. However, they were not supposed to dictate on any of these issues, nor to do too much “on behalf of” the farmers. They were thus a supplement to, not a long-term substitute for, the local leadership. Although the Philippines have regularized such organizers into a department of the National Irrigation Administration, other countries have often tried to use regular irrigation department staff to organize farmers.

In some cases, government agencies have been charged with organizing user groups. However, conventional bureaucratic approaches and attitudes are often not conducive to encouraging sustained collective action among resource users. Another common approach is to work through NGOs to organize user groups. The government of India and several state governments have contracted with NGOs to organize user groups for watershed management or Joint Forest Management (Shah 1998). The emphasis has often been on organizations, with targets and progress monitored in terms of number that have registered, instead of what is done through the organizations. Collective action that takes place outside the formal organizations, either through customary institutions or spontaneous cooperation, often goes unrecognized (Meinzen-Dick, Raju, and Gulati 2000 for India).

Enabling Environment

In addition to direct interventions to organize people at the community level, there has been considerable attention to policies to create a suitable environment for the organizations. This has included revising legislation to create legal standing for the organizations, and providing model by-laws and agreements with the government agencies. But much of the emphasis has been on the organizations and regulations, and especially what is required of the user groups. Less attention has been given to the rights of the groups, which are perhaps the most critical factor in enabling the organizations to operate.


Whereas collective action (or at least organizations) for resource management have been recognized as important in many devolution programs, the role of property rights have often not been given the same attention. Yet property rights play a central role in the management of natural resources, conveying authority and shaping the incentives for management. As a result, devolution programs that have not paid sufficient attention to property rights often confront them as a “second generation issue,” blocking further progress until they are adequately addressed (Svendsen 1997).

Property rights can be defined as “the capacity to call upon the collective to stand behind one’s claim to a benefit stream (Bromley 1991, emphasis in original).” Thus, property rights involve a relationship between the right holder, others, and an institution to back up the claim. Property rights over land and other natural resources are often broadly classified as public (held by the state), common (held by a community or group of users), and private (held by individuals or “legal individuals” such as companies).

Reasons for Addressing Property Rights

Why does it matter who holds the rights to natural resources? The arguments for attention to property rights can be summarized as: 1) property rights offer incentives for management; 2) property right give necessary authorization and control over the resource; and 3) property rights can reinforce collective action; and 4) assigning rights to the users demonstrates government commitment to devolution.

First, property rights provide confidence that the holder of the rights will reap the future benefits of investment and careful management, and bear the losses incurred by misuse of the resources. As a result, holding property rights provides a strong incentive for management. In terms of the conditions identified above for successful devolution, property rights lengthen users’ time horizon by increasing their expectations that they will have access to the resource in the future. If the resource is seen as the government’s, then users will not identify with it, and will expect the government to do all maintenance and investment. This includes not only major construction, repairs, or modifications to the resource base, but also guarding it against unauthorized use.

Many irrigation management transfer programs have recognized this, at some level. Users’ neglect or sabotage of government-operated irrigation facilities is seen as a sign of their alienation. Devolution programs then often speak of trying to give users “a sense of ownership” so that they will take care of the infrastructure. But “a sense of ownership” is difficult to convey without real rights. Where governments have borne the cost of developing the infrastructure, there has been reluctance to transfer its ownership to user groups. A number of management transfer programs have included ceremonies to formally transfer ownership of the infrastructure up to a certain point from the government to user groups (often after they make a payment or in-kind contribution). However, the irrigation infrastructure alone without the water is a liability, rather than an asset. Yet governments have been more reluctant to transfer water rights than rights to infrastructure, for a variety of reasons, including loss of revenue and fear of contestation.

A broader reason for the reluctance of governments to transfer rights is that the state claims ownership of many natural resources on behalf of society at large or “the nation.” Because natural resources are of vital importance to a country, and their management has important environmental and economic externalities for others (both in the country and internationally), legitimate questions are raised about why a particular group of users should be given property rights over those resources. However, assigning specific types of rights, e.g. use rights or long-term tenancy can mitigate such concerns.

Moreover, because the government often lacks the capacity to enforce state property rights or regulations on extensive resources such as rangelands, forests, marine fisheries, or irrigation, public property has, in effect become open access. Under this situation there is no management, and any who can exploit the resource do so, leading to overuse and resource depletion (for examples, see papers by Agrawal and Ostrom and by Pomeroy in this volume).

If the state cannot exert control over the use of a resource and turns to local communities or groups of users to do so, it is difficult or impossible for the latter to control usage if they do not have recognized management and exclusion rights over the resource, and backing from the state in the case of encroachment. The user group will be unlikely to be able to exclude a logging company or a commercial fishing trawler from extracting too much, if they do not have property rights. Even among the members of the group, if rights to the resource are held by the state or individuals, the group will have much more difficulty in setting and enforcing rules governing resource use than if common property rights are vested in some collective management entity. According to Murombedzi (1998), in much of sub-Saharan Africa, “the absence of a rights based context for community participation in natural resources management meant that local communities themselves did not develop the capacities necessary to fill in the vacuum left by the governments’ lack of capacity.”

Vesting control over resources, including the right to earn income from them, in the user group can also strengthen collective action by giving the organizations a source of revenue to cover their expenses. Collective action for resource management involves not only significant transaction costs, but also costs for maintaining infrastructure, planting trees or shrubs, and even patrolling to ensure rule compliance. If the organization is able to raise money by selling rights to certain trees, shares of water, or other usufructs, it is less dependent on membership fees and labor contributions (which are difficult to collect in early stages of organization, or if the level of fees are too high) or on subsidies from the government or external NGOs.9 The issue of financial sustainability has been particularly problematic for irrigation organizations, which can incur substantial costs for maintenance, but can also be an issue for other types of organizations.


9 Wade (1994) provides examples of how village communities in India auction rights to certain trees, fishing, and even liquor licenses to finance collective activities.

Finally, transferring property rights as part of devolution programs demonstrates a commitment on the part of the government to the devolution process. Such programs generally call for an increased commitment on the part of the resource users—of time, cash, and other resources. Calling for this increased participation seems unrealistic unless the government is also willing to commit to a new relationship with the resource and with the user groups. Transferring property rights transfers the rights to reap the benefits from the resource (or gives additional assurance to be able to reap future benefits). This aspect of the transfer of property not only helps offset the additional costs that users assume under devolution, but also demonstrates commitment on the part of the government.

A reasonable guideline for devolution programs is to ensure that user groups’ rights are commensurate with their responsibilities in managing the resource. This implies that cases of “community-based resource management” (where users take over more of the management function) would have stronger user rights than cases of joint management, where the state retains an active role in managing the system. However, even in the case of joint or co-management, some official affirmation of the users’ rights may be required to coalesce or strengthen local collective action, and to place users on a relatively more even footing with the agency staff. The intra-household and intracommunity bargaining literature has shown that those with more assets (especially property rights) are treated better and are better able to negotiate than those without assets (Agarwal 1997; Haddad, Hoddinott, and Alderman 1997; Quisumbing 1994). This principle also applies to negotiations and interactions between the users and agencies in co-management situations: users with recognized rights are more likely to have a say in decision-making.

Enriching our Understanding of Property Rights

When we speak of property rights, we do not refer to the simple concept of “ownership” as defined by state law. The concept includes various types of bundles of rights, which can derive from state, customary, religious law, or other normative frameworks.

“Ownership” is often taken as having complete control and rights over a resource. If we consider only state-defined ownership of many natural resources, we often find that the state claims ownership and is unwilling to give that up, as mentioned above. But if we look at particular bundles of rights, it is easier to identify specific rights that can be or are already held by users, either individually or collectively.

Schlager and Ostrom (1992) disaggregate the bundles of property rights into:

  • use rights, including access (to enter the resource domain, e.g. the right to cross a piece of land, go into a forest or canal) and withdrawal (to remove something, e.g. to take a pot of water, some kindling, fodder, or fish); and
  • control rights, including management (to modify or transform the resource, e.g. by planting trees or shrubs, enlarging a canal, or restricting what can be harvested), exclusion (to determine who else may use the resource), and alienation (to transfer rights to others, either by inheritance, sale, or gift).10


10 For discussion of these rights in the context of devolution programs, see Agrawal and Ostrom in this volume.

In most cases, governments are most reluctant to cede alienation rights, even to user groups. At the other extreme, use rights may be acknowledged even for individuals. The critical set of rights, from the standpoint of devolution programs, are the control rights of management and exclusion. Unless these rights are held by user groups, the groups will not be able to carry out many of the responsibilities that the government or their members expect of them. For example, forest committees will not be able to maintain the biomass if it cannot regulate how much members as well as outsiders extract. Nor can they regenerate the forest if they do not have management rights, e.g. to plant trees and protect the seedlings. The committee cannot assure the members that they will benefit from participating if they cannot exclude outsiders from taking the forest products or regulate the conditions under which they can come in (e.g. by harvesting only certain trees, and/or paying compensation).

Seen in this way, some form of management and exclusion rights for user groups appears to be a fundamental condition for effective devolution programs. But this is not simple or uncontroversial. Both state agencies and non-local stakeholders may oppose the conferring or legitimization of control rights by user groups.

On the one side, the state may be unwilling to cede control rights to user groups because of concerns that the groups will not regulate or manage the resource as the state would like (Murombedzi 1998). In addition to mistrust of users, there are legitimate public trust issues, where the state has a continuing responsibility because the condition of the resource base affects more than just the direct users. At the micro level, a downstream irrigation system will be affected if an upstream one takes too much water. At the macro level, the world “community” at large takes an interest in issues of tree cover or biodiversity conservation, as represented through international treaties or environmental NGOs. Thus, if the group does not take care of the resources, the state wants to be able to step in and take over. This is exacerbated where agency staff does not have confidence in the users’ technical knowledge or management abilities, or where the agency staff fears loss of control (and side payments, or rents, that they have been extracting by virtue of their formal control over resources).

On the other side, conferring management and exclusion rights on a user group restricts the use rights of individuals. This applies most clearly to those who are not included in the “user group,” whether that is a joint forest management committee, water users’ association, fishers’ cooperative, or pastoralist tribe.11 The problems with this are apparent in the “Principes d’Orientation du Code Rural” in Niger, which gives village authorities the rights to allocate land for cultivation and grazing. This potentially excludes transhumant pastoralists who are not part of the village, but have had customary rights to graze on certain rangelands and fallow fields (Niamir-Fuller 1999). The restrictions on use rights also apply to members of the group, who may face limits on how much they can use the resource. For example, decisions by a watershed management committee or joint forest management committee to close the forest except for two days a year limits the access and withdrawal rights of women or herders who were used to gathering kindling or fodder on a regular basis.


11 Even women of the households included in the user groups may find their use rights eroded if the group is male dominated, the interests of men and women differ, and women’s interests are not well articulated within the management group. For examples, see Ahluwalia 1997; Bhaviskar 1998; Ribot 1999; Sarin 1995; Vedeld 1999.

Besides disaggregating the bundles of rights, we need to recognize that not all property rights derive from the state, or belong to the government, to be “transferred” to the users. In many cases users have strong claims on the resource based on customary rights, usage over a long period of time, and/or substantial investment in developing the resource. Religious laws may set aside sacred groves or water sources that no one may tap, or designate only certain groups that are permitted to use a resource. Even local social norms allowing or prohibiting some people (e.g. women or certain castes) from using a resource may be relevant in defining property rights. Rather than seeing only a unitary set of laws governing property rights, legal pluralism points to the multiple, often overlapping, and even contradictory bases for claims on a resource (Benda-Beckmann, Benda-Beckmann, and Spiertz 1996).

Going back to the definition of property rights, we note that it is “the capacity to call upon the collective (Bromley 1991)” that is critical. This means that property rights are only as strong and legitimate as the institutions that stand behind them (Meinzen-Dick and Bruns 2000). If state institutions (e.g. government agencies, police, courts) have no capacity to enforce, then it matters little what is written in the statute books. Then customary or local law12 is more relevant. Conversely, where customary management institutions have been weakened, customary rights may no longer be enforced or observed. In practice, neither state nor local laws are all-powerful in a given context, nor do they operate in isolation from each other. Rather, property rights are the outcome of a complex interplay between various types of legal frameworks.


12 Local law refers to the dominant local interpretations of customary law, religious law, and other relevant normative and legal frameworks. See Benda-Beckmann, Benda-Beckmann, and Spiertz (1996)

If we broaden out our definitions of rights in this manner, we see that devolution programs are not necessarily a major transfer or “ceding” of rights from the state to users. In most cases users probably already feel they have some use and control rights to the resource. Where government agencies have not been very effective in monitoring and enforcing regulations, rights defined by local law are likely to be more relevant than the statutory rights. In many cases of natural resource management, user groups have strong claims to ownership of the resource. For example, in farmer-managed irrigation systems that were built by the farmers in Nepal or Bali, farmers not only claim ownership of the physical infrastructure, but also of the water rights. Villagers often claim ownership of forestland adjoining their village or areas or fishing rights, and pastoralist tribes have controlled large areas of rangelands. Over time, many governments have expanded their claim over those resources, either by stepping in to “improve” the resource (e.g. through rehabilitation or expansion of the irrigation infrastructure, reforesting certain areas, or introducing shrub plantations on the range), or simply by declaring a “nationalization” of the land, trees, fish, or water resources. In this context, devolution is not so much an issue of the state granting rights to users, but reaffirming their previous rights: not devolution, but restitution (see Ngaido and Kirk in this volume).

But though the state is not the sole source of legitimacy for property rights, it is still important for devolution programs to address the rights to resources. First, formal state recognition provides an “enabling framework” for user management (see Lindsay 1998). It strengthens the group’s rights, particularly against outside challengers (e.g. logging or fishing companies, other pastoralists, or irrigators’ groups). State recognition of users’ rights increases tenure security, creating greater incentives for users to participate in management and invest in the resource. Furthermore, addressing rights helps to clarify expectations between the state and users. As mentioned above, for the government to explicitly acknowledge the rights of user groups creates the basis for a more egalitarian relationship between the users and agency staff, which is an essential element for successful co-management regimes.


Returning to Figure 1, we note that user groups do not operate in isolation. Government agencies, local government, and the private sector (businesses and NGOs) are also important actors on the institutional landscape. Co-management is not just a two-way partnership between “the government” and a local user group, but an arrangement in which a variety of government, collective, and private institutions may have a role to play.13 In this section we look at some of the potential roles, incentives, and capacity issues for each in the context of devolution programs in natural resource management.


13 For discussions of the potential roles and relationships of these different institutions see Carney and Farrington 1998; Uphoff 1998; Ostrom, Schroeder, and Wynn 1993.

It is also useful to look at the relationships between these institutions in terms of decision-making, service provision, resource flows, and accountability. There are no clear prescriptions, but the first step is to consider who makes what types of decisions, what services each provides, who pays whom for the different services, and how and to whom each institution is accountable (Huppert and Urban 1998).



Devolution programs inherently involve a greater role for user groups in natural resource management. Increasing the responsibility of users for resource management is often one of the major motivations for governments to engage in such reforms. This might include responsibility for monitoring resource use (by group members and outsiders), enforcing rules, providing operation and maintenance services, and even making new investments in the resource base (e.g. by planting trees or shrubs, constructing new boreholes or irrigation facilities, or even building artificial reefs). However, not all of these activities need be done by the user groups themselves. Government agencies might still provide some technical services, training, ruleenforcement and dispute resolution. Other service provision such as maintenance or investment work might be contracted to private firms.

The critical form of participation of user groups is in decision-making. If devolution programs only seek to involve users in implementing regulations that are set by outsiders, the programs will not tap into the knowledge of users about their own resource situation. Moreover, people are more likely to abide by and enforce rules that they have had some say in setting. Thus, if devolution is to give users a role in governance of the resource, they must be able to set rules, determine sanctions, and make critical decisions about their organizations as well as the management of resources.

Whether user groups end up providing resource management services (and investment) themselves or obtaining the services from others, resource mobilization is required. The long-term viability of local organizations for resource management depends on whether they are able to raise enough money and/or labor and materials to carry out their tasks, or pay others to do so. This is discussed further under capacity of user groups.


Although community-based natural resource management is generally a more cost effective solution than central government administration, devolution implies a shift in who bears the cost of NRM, from government agencies to user groups. As a result, participation in natural resource management through devolution programs almost inevitably increases the costs borne by resource users. The most striking examples may be from irrigation systems, which had been run by government agencies with heavy subsidies, where devolution is treated as a means of reducing the financial burden on the state (by shifting the responsibility, and hence the costs, to farmers). In such cases, direct user fees may increase from 200 to 700 percent or more, even if the users’ associations are more efficient than the agencies in operating and maintaining the systems (Vermillion 1996). Other resources may not require as much infrastructure provision and maintenance costs, but still include the financial costs of acquiring inputs and marketing outputs, the opportunity costs of contributing labor or not converting land to agricultural production, the transaction costs of organizing for collective action, and the costs of participating in collective action activities and enforcing its underlying institutions. Even where the users have been de facto managers of the resource, formalizing arrangements between the users and the government is likely to increase the time and transaction costs the users must bear.

Whether or not local resource users will bear these costs of participating in natural resource management depends on whether they expect benefits that are enough to outweigh the costs. Benefits and costs include both tangible and intangible aspects as they are perceived and valued by the members themselves.

In terms of tangible benefits, the value of a resource for local consumption or sale is a key determinant of profitability. There is considerable debate on whether higher values for natural resources is more likely to expose them to the danger of degradation or protect them from it. On the one hand, high-value resources are worth managing and protecting, but they also create greater incentives for outsiders to come take the resources, or for members to break the rules and overharvest. Where devolution programs include clearly defined property rights, there may be stronger incentives to participate and to protect or enhance the resource base, because individuals have more confidence that they will reap the benefits. Where collective action is strong, individuals are assured that if they abide by the rules, others will as well.

In some cases, participating in the organizations or investing in the resource may create or strengthen property rights, which can be an incentive in and of itself. For example, members of the forestry association on Mt. Makiling in the Philippines hope that, by forming an organization that is active in protecting the forest and even works to replant areas, they will show themselves as responsible stewards of the forest, so that their historical claim to some of the land will be recognized, to end efforts by the statutory “land-owner” (the University of the Philippines Los Banos) to prevent them from occupying forest land.

The costs of participation and tangible benefits have long been at the heart of the collective action debate, but there is now greater recognition of the less quantifiable rewards of participation from the individual’s perspective. To the extent that people care how they are viewed by others, one can be motivated to participate by the approval they will get from others who are also inclined to participate. People may choose to participate in natural resource management because it offers an opportunity to socialize with others and form stronger relationships. Such networks contribute to greater livelihood security, especially in situations of poverty and risk, where mutual support among family, neighbors, and community become vital. For example, White and Runge (1995) found that in Haiti, even landless households would contribute labor to watershed management activities, in part to strengthen networks with landowners who might later offer employment or other help. There is growing recognition that such “social capital” may be one of the most important assets for households, and an important contributor to overall development.14


14 Whereas social capital can serve to enhance the prospects for successful devolution, it may threaten it too. Enforcement of NRM institutions can be weak if there are community alliances in which some members are reluctant to penalize others. Among communities where members are relatively interdependent, sanctioning someone for breaking the rules may strain the relationship, making one unable to call on that neighbor in a time of need. In areas which are poverty-stricken and possess high environmental risks, the potential costs of alienating one’s fellow community members may be considerable.

Finally, protecting the environment may also provide incentive for people to participate in resource management groups. While we should not assume that resourcedependent households will necessarily put environmental preservation ahead of household food or livelihood security, we should also not assume that they will deplete the resource base. Concern for the environment was cited as the main motivation behind women organizing to protect the Popenguine forest reserve in Senegal (Turnham 1999), and mentioned by the members of the Mt. Makiling forest users’ association in the Philippines, as well.


It would be a mistake to romanticize participatory resource management approaches and assume that local user groups will necessarily be able to take on all roles and responsibilities assigned to them under devolution programs, even if they have sufficient incentives to try. A prominent assumption in the literature advocating community-based resource management is that sufficient local knowledge exists for managing resources sustainably. This may be true in communities where current generations have been actively managing their resources, but it is not always the case. In some cases, such as when communities are newer, there may not be a tradition of natural resource management or collective action. In other cases, pre-existing institutions have frequently broken down in places that have been subjected to government intervention in resource management or have undergone increasing market orientation and diminished reliance on natural resources for sustaining livelihoods. Migration can deprive an area of knowledgeable individuals, or bring in those who are unfamiliar with the resource base or have different time horizons. These trends not only imply a potential loss of widespread technical know-how, but can also mean that collective action institutions have weakened or disappeared.

All of these factors are seen in rangelands, which are often located in marginal areas with considerable variability in climate and resource availability over space and time. Impoverishment and crises years have induced people to migrate, and those who leave are often the most energetic members of the community. Not only is important knowledge lost, but the external source of remittances reduces the dependence on local collective action for all household livelihoods. On top of this, there have been conscious efforts by many states to erode tribal authority and nationalize their lands. In such a context, merely adopting devolution programs and assuming that customary institutions will come back to life with sufficient authority to protect and manage the resources is unlikely to succeed unless there are sufficient support services to rebuild the local institutional capacity.

Three critical aspects of capacity to consider are financing, skills, and linkages to other organizations, i.e. whether there are sufficient financial resources, human resources, and organizational resources. If local organizations are deficient in one or more of these areas, it does not mean that devolution programs cannot proceed, but that other institutions may be called upon to supplement the capacity of the local organizations, at least in the short term.

Financing of user groups is a fundamental requirement for their long-term sustainability. If the organizations cannot raise enough cash, labor, or in-kind contributions to fulfill their designated roles, they will not be viable. Subsidies or contributions from the government or NGOs may be helpful in setting up the organization (to reduce the costs of initial organizing), but heavy dependency on such external sources will undermine the autonomy and decision-making ability of the user groups, and incentives to use the funds efficiently. Collecting contributions from members is often one of the most difficult tasks for collective action. However, as noted above, if the group holds property rights over certain assets (e.g. land, trees, shares of water, or even equipment), the income from use of those assets can contribute to financial sustainability of the organizations, and reduce the amount that needs to be collected from the members.

Critical skills for user groups include both technical skills in managing the resource as well as organizational skills for handling the organizations. Indigenous knowledge of the resource base is certainly important, but so also is knowledge of government regulations regarding its management, as well as technical or “scientific” information. Training and extension services are often critical in strengthening the capacity of user groups. Where devolution programs cut back the direct involvement of government agencies such as irrigation, forestry, or fisheries departments in managing the resources, staff can be reassigned to train resource users. This reduces the need to cut agency employees in the short term. However, extension services and training can also be contracted with NGOs or private companies.

Skills in dealing with government or market agencies may be as critical for success as knowledge of the resource base itself. Extension services may be needed not only to respond to the evolving technical needs of communities, but also to facilitate the development or strengthening of organizational skills. The larger the number of stakeholders and the greater the diversity of their interests in various resources, the more sophisticated both administrative and enforcement capacities need to be for devolution to work. Legitimacy and voluntary acceptance of rules and roles are fundamental elements of a successful devolution process. Where communities have become increasingly dependent on the state, local authority structures are likely to have been undermined or at least their legitimacy weakened. On the other hand, where customary institutions are strong, decision-making power is often concentrated along gender, class, ethnic, and religious lines. To prevent resources from being captured by a limited set of interest groups requires ensuring that more marginalized interest groups will have a voice in decision-making (both to promote equity and to increase the likelihood that all will abide by the rules). Devolution programs can strengthen the organizational capacity of user groups through use of institutional organizers (as discussed above) and training in such issues as legal literacy (awareness of regulations), accounting, or how to run a meeting. As with technical training, these support services to strengthen capacity may be provided by the government, NGOs, or private firms.

Setting rules achieves nothing unless they are observed, and when it comes to the enforcement necessary to sustain institutions, robust collective action is needed. In the case of common property, strong collective action and property rights institutions are mutually reinforcing. Joint monitoring and support for sanctions punishing violators discourages ‘free riding’ or claiming more resources than one is entitled to. Likewise, joint rights to a resource implies a common interest in securing its benefits which is likely to be best achieved through a cooperative strategy. But enforcement may also be a problem if users are reluctant to expose or sanction violators with whom they have other social and economic ties.

Capacity for enforcement and conflict management are areas in which user organizations require assistance from government or NGOs. While many user groups are effective in monitoring, sanctioning rule-breaking, and managing conflict among their members, they rarely have the authority to penalize or settle disputes with nonmembers. Therefore, support is required for penalizing non-members. Where decentralization has put policing authority in the hands of local government, this is the relevant institution, but in other cases the involvement of the coast guard, forest or irrigation departments, or courts might be necessary for sanctioning. Handling intercommunity conflict might also done be by those same institutions, or NGOs might act as arbitrators.

One way in which user organizations have strengthened their internal organizational capacity is for local groups to federate into higher-level organizations. Thus, villagelevel organizations may federate to cover an entire forest area or irrigation system, and these system-level organizations may even federate to the state or national level (as seen in the national federation of irrigation associations in the Philippines, forestry committees in Nepal, or pastoralists in Niger). Federations facilitate the sharing of information and examples, dispute resolution between local units, and collective bargaining with the government or other service suppliers. Federations can be especially important for resources like rangelands or large-scale irrigation systems that have very large spatial dimensions and where access to external resources is very important in crisis periods. As with local-level organizing, initial assistance from the government or an NGO may help with initial organizing, but the federations need to be supported by and accountable to their members.


We are unlikely to find a country where the state does not have some control over its natural resources. However, the extent of control varies considerably among countries, depending on the resource and the beliefs and values upheld by the government. Even where control over resources are highly decentralized, governments often retain control over mineral resources and may own sizable tracts of land as protected areas.

Nevertheless, devolution of natural resource management to communities implies a change in the role for government agencies, from direct management of the resources to providing a regulatory framework and support services, such as those mentioned in the previous section. Ultimately, many devolution programs state an objective of change from top-down “command and control” to client-oriented systems, which give resource users more control.

What are the incentives for agencies to change their roles in this direction? In many countries, there are pressures on the government to change because budgets continue to shrink and agencies are faced with mounting constraints to manage natural resources, if they were ever able to effectively do so in the first place. Multi- and bi-lateral aid agencies not only tend to have market reforms on their agendas, but also want to see demonstrated efforts by governments to improve environmental management. In addition, international environmental interests are gaining strength and credibility, which enable them to put increasing pressure on governments to halt degradation and destruction of natural resources. All of the international conventions in the course of the Rio Summit, especially the Convention to Combat Desertification, Agenda 21, and the Biodiversity Convention have given international legal standing to these concerns (Kirk 1998).

Such forces reshape the incentive structures faced by governments and state agencies in favor of shifting costly management responsibilities for natural resources toward local users. However, unless these incentives are also translated into incentives for the agency staff, the reforms may not be implemented as planned. As they give up their roles in managing resources, agency leaders and staff will most likely feel threatened unless new roles are developed which offer sufficient job security, salary and status (Vermillion 1996). This is especially the case if the state gives up ownership over natural resources along with those responsibilities. Revenues from exploiting resources or contracting with private industries to exploit and sell them are threatened. Furthermore, their reduced role can be interpreted as a loss of importance, which is likely to mean a cut in government funding and diminished power and status accorded to the heads of those agencies.

Restructuring government agencies to be financially autonomous is one means to create incentives for staff to work with resource users by making the agency dependent on financial flows from the users. A prime example of this approach was the reform of the Philippines’ National Irrigation Administration to become financially autonomous, which (together with “bureaucratic reorientation” efforts to strengthen participatory approaches to irrigation) made the users the clients of the agency, with more leverage (see Korten and Siy 1988; Small and Carruthers 1991).

Co-management regimes which allocate different bundles of rights to local users and the state may ease the transition for agency staff, and even offer attractive new roles for all concerned. In addition to providing support services, the state can negotiate on  behalf of non-local stakeholders and those who are not included in the user groups. Important roles also remain for government agencies to back up local enforcement capacity where it is weak by enforcing penalties when user groups catch illegal fishers or loggers. Clear (written) agreements on co-management arrangements can be an important tool in laying down mutual understanding of the roles, responsibilities, and rights between the agencies and user groups. However, the distribution of rights and responsibilities between governments and local users needs to be worked out in a participatory manner.

Much of the literature advocating community-based resource management points to inadequate government capacity for direct management of the resources. A primary reason is the lack of information on local conditions and realities (physical, economic, and social) available to central government agencies, at least at a cost that is reasonable. But governments often find they have even less information and experience on how to effectively devolve authority and management of resources. Agencies staffed with technical personnel may not have the skills or orientation to work with resource users to encourage participatory organizational development. Specialists or NGOs may need to be brought in as community organizers. Agency staff may be better at technical training or monitoring and backstopping the resource users, but some reorientation may still be required to move away from top-down attitudes and mistrust of the users.

Institutional change in the agencies, as in the user groups, will not take place overnight, nor are there simple prescriptions or blueprints. The pace and direction of the changes will differ in each country and resource, depending on the history, culture, and structure of the organizations and the people they work with. Although duplication of successful models in other countries is not likely to be viable, studying the components of successes and failures is vital for understanding the broad dimensions of an effective devolution process and what questions need to be asked.


Because decentralization programs often occur side by side with devolution of natural resource management, “the government” includes not only bureaucratic arms of the central government, but also local government bodies. Co-management capacity can also be enhanced through creating more decentralized government structures.

Empowering local government units with authority and responsibility narrows the information gap on what is most appropriate at the local level and is better suited to collaboration with resource users. Where local governments act in tandem with user groups, they provide useful backup, especially to enforce penalties for breaking the laws on resource management. In some cases, the user groups may be set up as separate organizations to meet the requirements of some program, but the user groups are effectively a part of the local government.15 This seems most likely where there is either a strong local government, and/or a lack of factionalism within the community.

15 For example, in India an irrigation or forest users’ group may be either a sub-group of the village panchayat council, rather than having separate organization and leadership.

However, if local governments are being re-invigorated and given expanded powers at the same time that resource user groups are being set up, there may be overlap, confusion, and conflicts regarding the role of each. This is especially true where both claim rights over natural resources as a source of revenue for their activities. Competition between individuals or parties for power and patronage may set up rivalries between the leadership in power in the local government and the user groups. The extent of competition and collaboration between these institutions may also vary between communities and over time, depending on who is in power in each type of institution. The incentives for local government and user groups to cooperate with each other seem strongest where the “community” is more ethnically and economically homogeneous so that most of the local residents are users of the resource, and share a common interest in it.

As discussed above, user organizations often need backing from local government, especially for enforcement of penalties against non-members who break the laws governing resource use. At the same time, truly democratic local government can provide a voice for local residents who may be excluded from the resource management group. For example, if an irrigators’ association composed of relatively wealthy male farmers is approached to tap their water source to supply a drinking water scheme for the village, the association members may refuse because they value their irrigation water more highly than domestic water supply for others. In such a case, the local government could negotiate on behalf of those who need a new domestic water supply. However, local governments may not always have the capacity to provide representation for the marginalized, or services for resource management. This is especially a concern in the early stages of decentralization programs, if local governments are stretched thin in  providing other basic services such as health care, education, roads, etc. Thus, strengthening the capacity of local governments may make them more effective partners in the devolution of natural resource management.


At first glance it may seem strange to examine profit-oriented businesses and nonprofit NGOs in the same category. Profit-seeking firms such as logging companies or commercial fishing trawlers have often been one of the greatest threats to community based resource management. On the other side, NGOs have often been seen as the “good guy” in organizing local communities for resource management. The commercial logic associated with businesses is very different from the mission-orientation and participatory approaches associated with NGOs.

Yet both types of private sector institutions are often involved in service provision to user groups in the context of devolution programs. Businesses tend to be contracted for input supply and doing construction, operation, and maintenance services, as well as some organizational services such as accounting or auditing. NGOs tend to be contracted for organizing communities (though private consulting firms may do this, as well.) Both may be involved in support services such as training user groups.

Somewhat surprisingly, although NGOs are generally assumed to have greater contact with local people and a more participatory approach, business firms may be more accountable to the members of the user groups. This is because the commercial enterprises depend on payment from the user groups (or payment from the government for their services to the users) for their revenue. Thus, they need to provide a service to be paid. By contrast, NGOs are generally not paid by the users themselves, and are therefore less directly accountable to them. As in the case of financially autonomous government agencies, where users pay for services they become the clients and acquire more leverage in negotiations than where they are the “beneficiaries” of services financed by others.

The incentives and capacity of private sector organizations (and their staff) vary enormously from place to place, as well as organization to organization. Some NGOs are dedicated to environmental preservation, others to rural welfare, or a host of other goals. Other NGOs may be indistinguishable from private consulting firms, operating on contracts for particular activities. The number of NGOs has been growing rapidly in recent years, but they are still not available everywhere. Similarly, in some places there are many entrepreneurial service providers—in other places such firms are scarce or non-existent. In Nepal, leaders of a particularly effective irrigation organization have even become consultants to farmers in other irrigation schemes, helping them decide what type of organizational structure and activities will work.

The exact choice of organizations for user groups to work with will therefore be very site-specific. What is important to remember is the range of options. Users do not need to do all the work of managing resources themselves. Others can be contracted to provide tree nurseries, clean irrigation canals, audit the books, or even give legal advice.

Whatever the exact institutional arrangements, for devolution to truly engage resource users, the user organizations should be in a position to make important decisions, to select or negotiate with the other organizations that provide services, and hold them accountable. For the organization to truly control the resource (in the sense of being able to reap the benefits from it) greatly strengthens its bargaining power with members as well as with outsiders. Such governance by the users is necessary to make sure that the programs tap into local knowledge as an asset for better resource management. It also increases the likelihood that users will internalize and abide by the rules, if they feel they have a say in developing them.


Entrusting management of natural resources to government agencies has proven to be expensive and ineffective. Many governments lack the resources to adequately manage natural resources over large areas. Financial crises as well as environmental degradation have driven governments to devolve natural management to user groups. Evidence of successful self-governance of natural resources by the users themselves has engendered considerable optimism that turning responsibility over to organized user groups will improve the efficiency, equity, and sustainability of the resource base while also reducing the financial burden on the state.

However, devolution programs have not always been successful in achieving all of these objectives. Considerably more attention is needed to the factors that make users willing and able to take on an expanded role, to use resources wisely, distribute the benefits equitably, and sustain the resource base for future generations. This paper has highlighted the role of effective collective action and property rights in devolution programs, and indicated some things that might be done to strengthen these institutions.

First, if the state is to devolve management of common pool resources such as rangelands, forests, fisheries, or irrigation to users, there needs to be some form of coordination among the users to carry out the management tasks. But one cannot automatically assume that an organization exists, or will spring to life of itself once a devolution policy is adopted. In many cases there are or have been effective selfgoverning institutions for resource management, but they are not found everywhere, and their legitimacy and capacity to manage the resource has often been eroded by government resource management.

There is a growing body of experience with participatory methods for identifying formal and informal local institutions for resource management, and how to organize and strengthen groups that can take over functions. Because of the enormous variability in the resource base, the socioeconomic conditions, and the history of cooperation, no single blueprint will be appropriate for all situations. Values, norms, and social structures eminently affect users’ capacity for cooperation. A weak or absent tradition of cooperation, a breakdown in collective action institutions, or poor organizational capacity among users and other stakeholders necessitate institutional development if devolution of natural resource management is to be effective. This also applies when there is open access resource use or highly inegalitarian private property regimes which exclude those who depend on natural resources for their livelihood.

Rule structures cannot be modified overnight and require user participation in assessing the costs and benefits of various resource management strategies and in designing new alternatives. Legitimate institutions can only emerge from those who will have to live by their rules and cannot be imposed from the outside. Outsiders have roles ranging from facilitating the process of problem analysis and crafting solutions, providing information on the rationale for adopting new institutions or modifying existing ones, offering a broader perspective of the potential benefits and costs of doing-so, supplying technical knowledge, and assisting in strengthening organizational capacity. However, short-term participation on one front does not assure its long-term application to upholding new institutions and sustainable resource management practices. Incentives, within and beyond communities, need to be in place, which encourage people to participate in resource management and abide by the established rules. Just as building up a physical infrastructure for transportation or communication needs to be regarded as a long-term investment, so also building up an institutional infrastructure takes time and a commitment of resources, but can have high payoffs.

Devolution programs that transfer responsibilities for resource management to users must also transfer commensurate rights. Property rights are necessary for resource users to undertake many management tasks, and are one of the most important incentives that governments can offer users to induce them to bear the costs of natural resource management. Transferring rights to local groups can strengthen collective action, and set the stage for more collaborative (as opposed to hierarchical) interaction between user groups and government agencies).

Even with the most complete transfers of rights and responsibilities to users, there is still a critical role for state in enforcing regulations, punishing violators, and settling disputes between groups and outsiders. Responsive backup from the relevant government authority—whether an agency or local government—will build users’ confidence in their organization and in the new co-management arrangements.

State agencies and user groups are not the only relevant institutional actors, who must assume all roles in natural resource management. Especially in the context of broader decentralization and privatization policies, local government, NGOs, and private companies can also play an important part in carrying out natural resource management functions. Local government can provide backup enforcement, and private firms and NGOs can provide many of the services required.

Whatever the final arrangements between user groups and government or private service providers, there is a need for initial negotiation between the different parties, and to develop a clear understanding of the roles, rights, and responsibilities of each party. Coordination mechanisms include not only information exchange, but also revenue flows (who pays for what) and mutual accountability mechanisms. Having a written agreement regarding these arrangements is useful but not sufficient. Even after the agreement is signed, there is an ongoing need for communication, sharing of information, and for building trust (Alsop 1999). Just as collective action must be built between individual resource users, so also collaborative arrangements need to be built between organizations involved in co-management of natural resources.

If the users are to do any better than the state, and if devolved resource management is to be sustainable in the long run, it is essential that the users be able to mobilize sufficient resources. In many cases, devolution results in users paying considerably more (at least in cash) than they did under subsidized, state-run systems. Whether the users will be willing to pay the higher costs depends on their having sufficient tangible and intangible incentives. Rather than seeing these payments only as a burden on users, resource flows from user groups to other service providers can be a means of increasing the bargaining power of the user groups, and the accountability of other organizations to the users. Collective action can play a significant role in reducing costs through effective organization, and can provide each user with the confidence that if they contribute, others will as well. Property rights can provide users with the confidence that if they invest in the resource (or avoid overuse) today, they (and their heirs) will reap the benefits tomorrow. Furthermore, property rights over assets assigned to the user groups can provide a core of funding for resource management, thereby reducing the need to raise all funds from member contributions.

While much has been learned regarding community-based resource management and co-management approaches, much remains to be learned through research and action. There is certainly a role for action research and careful process documentation to learn what works—and does not work—in devolution projects. We especially need more documentation of the outcomes of devolution programs in terms of the efficiency of resource use, who gains and who loses, and the long-term financial as well as environmental sustainability of the resource management system. Nor is it enough to study “success stories” or pilot projects. We also need comparative studies that include “failures” as well as successes, if we are to identify critical factors. Finally, in addition to positive analyses and government perspectives on the processes and outcomes of programs, we also need to include the assessments of the resource users themselves, for in the long run, it is they who will determine whether devolution of natural resource management is viable.


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