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The evolution and importance of 'rules-in-use' and low-level penalties in village-level collective action

Brian Joubert
University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada; joubert@ualberta.ca

Robert Summers
University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada; robert.summers@ualberta.ca

ABSTRACT: In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa community water points are provided through external support in the form of enhanced boreholes fitted with hand pumps. The external agency supplying the improved water source commonly provides maintenance training and assists in organising a governance plan for the water point. Despite its apparent virtues the Village-Level Operation and Maintenance model still experiences high levels of water point failures, even where the technical training and material conditions are adequate. There has been relatively little investigation of the institutional factors that may influence the cases where villages successfully maintain their shared water source infrastructure. This research investigated five villages in central Malawi where communities had maintained their water point hand pumps for periods exceeding 10 years. The results point to the importance of informal institutions giving primacy to ad-hoc 'rules-in-use' that suit the local context, and adapting forms of free-rider sanctions that are typically minor, low level and triangulated with local norms and behaviours. The findings highlight collective action that is successful through day-to-day adaption and that serves to institutionalise cooperative behaviour through appeals to norms.

KEYWORDS: Shared resources, water, institutions, collective action, rules, hand pump, Malawi