12. Conditions for successful collective action: Insights from field experiences

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12.1 A general overview
12.2 The problem of economic incentives
12.3 The twin issues of group size and homogeneity
12.4 The rationale and characteristics of sanction systems
12.5 The role of tradition
12.6 Conclusion

12.1 A general overview

The previous chapter has highlighted a number of important changing circumstances that tend to make village-based schemes for resource management increasingly difficult. As aptly summarized by Lawry: the 'modernisation process' itself has reduced incentives for individuals to participate in localised collective arrangements, has undercut the economic viability of common property institutions, and has reduced the political legitimacy of local management authorities. Population growth and technological change have increased pressures on natural resources to the extent that 'minimum' common property rules do not provide effective regulation. Local institutions, weakened by far-reaching economic and political changes, are unlikely to impose intensive controls, especially where there is little precedent for direct regulation. Local common property management will not emerge simply by giving greater official rein to local action. (Lawry, 1989b: 4)

In the same vein, Wade has noted that:

Indeed, some of the large-scale and long-term changes occurring in the rural areas of developing countries may be lowering the average probability of cooperative solutions. Rapidly rising person/land pressures may increase the dangers of trusting people and increase the number of people to be trusted; migration may reduce 'recurrence and noticeability'; state penetration of rural areas may only undermine old systems of authority without permitting or establishing new ones, resulting in a hiatus of confidence. (Wade, 1988a: 216)

This being said, Wade also insists that 'a sweeping pessimism is ill-founded, both empirically and analytically'. According to him, there are sufficient examples of success of locally devised rule systems or resource management schemes 'to negate the necessity of full private property rights or for control by a central authority in order to protect common-pool resources' (Wade, 1988a: 199). None the less, there is no denying at the same time that there are also numerous—even 'many more'—examples of failed attempts by villagers to manage local CPRs and of degenerating commons in the absence of state regulation or private property (ibid. 208).

The following accounts offer striking illustrations of failures of group management in the specific cases, first, of an irrigation scheme in Nepal and, second, of a village forestry in Pakistan:

Water allocation is primarily first come, first served. Thus, farmers at the head . . . tend to get all the water they need, while farmers at the tail often receive inadequate and unreliable amounts of water. This situation has often led to conflict between head and tail farmers. Sometimes hundreds of farmers from the area near the middle village of Parshai will take spears and large sticks and go together to the head village of Baramalhia to demand that water be released. At Baramajhia farmers are often guarding their water with weapons. If water is released, Parshai farmers have had to maintain armed guards to assure that the . . . canal remains open. (Laitos et al., 1986: 147, cited from Ostrom and Gardner, 1993: 105)

Increasing demand for fuelwood and timber had caused large-scale deforestation in Azad Kashmir over the preceding 30 years . . . Both the formal and customary systems allowed and regulated wood gathering. .. In practice, however, customary user rights have been very liberally interpreted and broadened, while the use-limits set through formal regulations have been transgressed. Within a radius of several miles from many human settlements, virtually all trees were debranched beyond the limits set by sylvicultural recommendations . . . Outright topping has also occurred and prematurely killed the trees. Roadside trees are similarly molested. On community lands, open access practices in the absence of community management have fully consumed the tree cover. Forest resources have also been devastated by local livestock that graze without adequate controls. (Cernea, 1989: 10 11)

It is perhaps too simplistic to view the experiences of common-property management in terms of outright failure or success. It is likely that a good number of these experiences are only partially successful. A recent study by Lopez (1992) has precisely attempted to measure the degree of success of common property management practices in the tropical fallow agriculture of Western Ivory Coast. His measurement method is based on a comparison between the amount of land actually left fallow by the villagers on the one hand, and the amount which would be left fallow under an open-access regime or a perfectly regulated common property, on the other hand. Success of collective action for soil conservation is captured by a unique coefficient which measures the relative position of actual practices compared to the above two reference situations. The main conclusion of the author is that communities do exert some control on the utilization of their (communal) land resources, yet the extent of this control is far from being sufficient to ensure their optimal exploitation, implying that, under the current institutional arrangements, the level of land left fallow is substantially lower than the socially optimal level. More precisely, 'the estimates suggest that for reasonable discount rates, the community controls force individual farmers to act "as if" about 20 per cent of the true social shadow price were charged to them as a user fee for the use of land' (Lopez, 1992: 19). The lost benefits resulting from such regulation failure are all the more important as, even in the short run, there are no real output trade-offs when overexploitation of land is reduced via restricted use. Indeed, under some reasonable assumptions, the positive effect of reducing the contemporaneous externality more than offsets the negative direct effect of reducing the cultivated area (ibid. 20).

In view of the mixed results of village-level management of natural resources, it is essential to examine as many field experiences of success and failure as possible with a view to identifying the conditions or circumstances that are more conducive to effective local-level management of CPRs. This is precisely the kind of approach which many researchers have followed since the publication of the well-known Proceedings of the Conference on Common Property Resource Management under the initiative of the US National Research Council (1986).

In a recent book, Ostrom has offered us a detailed review of a good sample of meaningful experiences where villagers have attempted, successfully or not, to organize collective action related to providing local public goods (Ostrom, 1990). Her explicit aim was to understand the factors that can enhance or detract from the capabilities of individuals so to organize. A similar intent underlies other recent attempts, such as the one made by Schlager ( 1990) to systematize the findings of quite a number of carefully selected case-studies of fishery management, or those made by Tang (1992), or by Ostrom again (1992) with respect to irrigation systems. At this preliminary stage, it is interesting to cite the factors which condition the success of locallevel resource management schemes according to three already quoted authors who have based their conclusions on either a specific case-study or a series of experiences chosen across a wide spectrum of sectors and countries. The latter applies to Ostrom (1990) while the former holds true for Wade (1988a)—who relies on his own first-hand study of village-based irrigation and grazing systems in South India—and also for McKean (1986)—who has focused her attention on traditional CPR management systems in Japan.

Ostrom has formulated seven so-called 'design principles' that characterize all the robust CPR institutions which she has analysed, plus an eighth principle used in the larger, more complex cases. By design principle, she means 'an essential element or condition that helps to account for the success of these institutions in sustaining the CPRs and gaining the compliance of generation after generation of appropriators to the rules in use' (Ostrom, 1990: 90). These design principles play an important role because 'they can affect incentives in such a way that appropriators will be willing to commit themselves to conform to operational rules devised in such systems, to monitor each other's conformance, and to replicate the CPR institutions across generational boundaries' (ibid. 91). The author's conviction is that they form a core of necessary conditions for achieving institutional robustness in CPR settings. Table 12.1 summarizes them.

Let us now turn to the contribution of Wade. His basic conclusion is summarized as follows:

My argument suggests that, as an extreme case, we could not expect to find effective rules of restrained access organised by the users themselves when there are many users, when the boundaries of the common-pool resources are unclear, when the users live in groups scattered over a large area, when undiscovered rule-breaking is easy, and so on. In these circumstances a degradation of the commons can confidently be expected, and privatisation or state regulation may be the only options. The further an actual case deviates from this extreme the more likely will the people who face the problem be able to organise a solution. (Wade, 1988a: 215)

In a more detailed manner, the likelihood of successful collective action is seen to depend on:

1. The resources

The smaller and more clearly defined the boundaries of the common-pool resources the greater the chances of success.

TABLE 12.1. Design principles illustrated by long-enduring CPR institutions

1. Clearly defined boundaries. Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself
2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions. Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units are related to local conditions and to provision rules requiring labour, material, and/or money.
3. Collective-choice arrangements. Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules.
4. Monitoring. Monitors, who actively audit CPR conditions and appropriator behaviour, are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators.
5. Graduated sanctions. Appropriators who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and context of the offence) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to these appropriators, or by both.
6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms. Appropriators and their officials have rapid access to low-cost local arenas to resolve conflicts among appropriators or between appropriators and officials.
7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize. The rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external governmental authorities.
For CPRs that are parts of larger systems
8. Nested enterprises. Appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

Source: Ostrom (1990: 90).

2. The technology

The higher the costs of exclusion technology (such as fencing) the better the chances of success.

3. Relationship between resources and user group

(i) Location: the greater the overlap between the location of the common-pool resources and the residence of the users the greater the chances of success.

(ii) Users' demands: the greater the demands (up to a limit) and the more vital the resource for survival the greater the chances of success.

(iii) Users' knowledge: the better their knowledge of sustainable yields the greater the chances of success.

4. User group

(i) Size: the smaller the number of users the better the chances of success, down to a minimum below which the tasks able to be performed by such a small group cease to be meaningful (perhaps because, for reasons to do with the nature of the resource, action to mitigate common property problems must be done, if at all, by a larger group).

(ii) Boundaries: the more clearly defined are the boundaries of the group, the better the chances of success.

(iii) Relative power of sub-groups: the more powerful are those who benefit from retaining the commons, and the weaker are those who favour sub-group enclosure or private property, the better the chances of success.

(iv) Existing arrangements for discussion of common problems: the better developed are such arrangements among the users the greater the chances of success.

(v) Extent to which users are bound by mutual obligations: the more concerned people are about their social reputation the better the chances of success.

(vi) Punishments against rule-breaking: the more the users already have joint rules for purposes other than common-pool resource use, and the more bite behind those rules, the better the chances of success.

5. Noticeability

Ease of detection of rule-breaking free riders: the more noticeable is cheating on agreements the better the chances of success. Noticeability is a function partly of 1, 3(i), and 4(i).

6. Relationship between users and the state

(i) Ability of state to penetrate to rural localities, and state tolerance of locally based authorities: the less the state can, or wishes to, undermine locally based authorities, and the less the state can enforce private property rights effectively, the better the chances of success. (ibid. 215-16; see also Wade, 1987: 231-2)

Although they are presented in a more discursive way, McKean's conclusions are especially worth quoting in view not only of the great precision and subtlety of her analysis but also of the importance of the Japanese historical experience with respect to village-based resource management. From her study, several factors come out as crucial determinants of the success achieved by Japanese villages in management of local-level CPRs. First, 'their small size, their very strong community identity and a sense of mutual interdependence that was reinforced by a formal structure of collective responsibility . . . almost certainly enhanced their ability to make any regulatory scheme work, even a very badly designed one' (McKean, 1986: 567). Second, Japanese villagers were acutely aware of the risk of resource overuse as well as of the relationship between use behaviour and the state of the resource: for instance, they 'knew how much forest they had to leave intact to produce the fertilizer they needed for their cultivated plots' (ibid. 568).

A third essential condition for success is that the rules laid down by the village community were clear and simple so as to be easily understood by the people concerned. 'Every time I asked about the reason for a particular rule', writes McKean, 'my informants gave a sophisticated and sensible explanation in terms of the environmental protection and fair treatment of all the villagers'. In addition, 'even if the village elders were the prime repositories of accumulated scientific knowledge, this information circulated regularly through the village' (McKean, 1986: 563). As hinted at above, rules were also fair enough to carry legitimacy:

Japanese villagers were deeply concerned with some notion of fairness . . . Fairness was not synonymous with equality in material possessions . . . But there was an overriding sense that access to the commons should be distributed according to some principle of fairness that ignored existing maldistributions in private wealth. Hence the frequent use of random distributions, assignment to parcels or products of the commons by lottery, frequent rotations to move the good and the bad around, and scrupulous attention to bookkeeping to keep track of contributions and exchanges and offsetting aid offered by one household to another. Such methods provided assurance to each co owner that the sacrifices and gains of other co-owners would be similar, and offered the additional advantage of removing the competitive impulse (which is very dangerous when it becomes a race to see who can deplete the commons first) and thus relieving pressure on the commons . . . Nor did this notion of fairness mean that entitle ment was automatic for all comers. . .; a household had to earn its eligibility through some period of established residence in the village, and casual drifters were ignored. (McKean, 1986: 568-9)

Moreover, rules were flexible so as to allow adjustment to changing circumstances. Thus, 'when villagers felt that the rules were too lax, or when they began to fear the environmental consequences of too many violations, they modified their management techniques in the direction of still greater caution in order to save the commons' (McKean, 1986: 566, see also 568).

Finally, the Japanese experience demonstrates that rules are no, self-enforcing. This is because, although Japanese villagers 'internalised the preservation of the commons as a vital goal' and had a long tradition of co-operative organization, they were 'vulnerable to temptations to bend, evade, and violate the rules governing the commons' (McKean, 1986: 569). A fourth factor underlying successful CPR management in Japan is therefore that there existed effective schemes of penalties aimed directly at controlling free riding. There are apparently at least three conditions that must be fulfilled for a punishment system to be effective: (1) sanctions must be escalating (Japanese villages had 'an escalating scale of penalties'); (2) they must he flexible enough to allow for exceptional circumstances; and (3) special devices must be built into the system to watch the watchers (ibid. 564-70).

In conclusion, McKean notes,

the [Japanese] villagers themselves invented the regulations, enforced them, and meted out punishments, indicating that it is not necessary for regulation of the commons to be imposed coercively or from the outside. This, along with the fact that villagers could change their own rules through a process of consultation and consensus that was democratic in form if not always in fact, almost certainly increased the legitimacy of the regulations. Although the Tokugawa social order was very oppressive toward individuals whom it classified as 'deviant', the village itself was largely self-regulating in this regard, and did not require intervention by an autocratic state to protect the commons. (ibid. 571)

As is evident from the above excerpts as well as from the conclusions reached by many other authors, there is wide consensus on the fact that local management of CPRs may only work adequately under a limited range of conditions. There is also wide agreement on the nature of a large number of such conditions. Thus, for example, most authors emphasize that user groups must be small, live close to the CPRs, and be free to set access and management rules in their own way; the CPRs must be clearly defined and people must have a high level of dependence on them; rules as well techniques of calculation and control must be simple and fair; there must be well-established schemes of punishment and these work best when they are graduated to fit the offence; costs of monitoring must not be too high; well-known and low-cost conflict-resolution mechanisms must be available; crucial decisions must be taken publicly; and some record-keeping and accountability must be provided for.

Beyond this apparently massive consensus there are however a number of important 'shadow zones' either because authors may not all agree on the exact meaning to be attached to the foregoing propositions or concepts, or because they (implicitly or explicitly) diverge on some of the conditions under which local management of CPRs is likely to have a reasonable degree of success. Furthermore, there are certain crucial issues which are left unresolved or are inadequately dealt with in the existing literature. The subsequent sections are devoted to highlighting these 'shadow zones' and discussing some of the problems involved. Also, a special effort is made in the course of the discussion to relate crucial empirical findings or observations to theoretical insights developed at length in Part I.