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Institutions and sustainable livelihoods

Jim Bingen


At the beginning of the fifth decade of development, several development assistance agencies (bilateral, multilateral and non-governmental) have started to employ a "sustainable livelihoods approach" (SLA) to programmes for poverty eradication and for the enhancement of poor people's livelihoods (Carney et al. 2000; Farrington et al. 1999). The adoption of this new approach arises in part from some dissatisfaction with and the shortcomings of previous development policies, including integrated rural development, basic needs and others. Recent changes in the institutional and global context of agricultural competitiveness, environmental sustainability and rural poverty also drive development programmes to be grounded on a holistic understanding of people's livelihoods and how they change over time.

Agencies adopting SLA generally agree that a "sustainable livelihood" comprises three interrelated components: (1) some combination or portfolio of capabilities, assets (including physical, natural and social resources or capital) and activities, (2) that enable people to deal with events and trends as well as develop various strategies to pursue desired livelihood outcomes, (3) while maintaining or enhancing their capabilities and assets over time. Based on this concept, SL frameworks help diagram the various interrelationships among the events and trends affecting people's lives, as well as the structures (levels of government, private-sector actors, etc.) and processes (laws, policies, institutions, etc.) that influence people's access to and use of livelihood assets.

In contrast with earlier development policies, the SL approach is based on three important and interrelated considerations. First, it "puts people at the centre of development" and focuses on the impact of different policy and institutional arrangements on people's livelihoods. Second, it seeks to be holistic by encouraging an identification of livelihood-related opportunities and constraints regardless of where these occur. Third, it considers the "macro-micro links", or how the design and implementation of policies affect people's assets, and how the structures and processes through which they function can be improved (Farrington et al. 1999).

The policy and institutional arrangements or the "policies, institutions and processes"1 play a transforming role in driving many of the key relationships that comprise this approach. These structures and processes determine the access to various types of capital, various strategies, decision-making bodies and sources of influence. They affect the terms of exchange between different types of capital as well as the returns to livelihood strategies. They operate at all levels and in all spheres, both public and private, and they influence the conditions that promote the achievement of multiple livelihood strategies. Despite the critical role of these arrangements in devising sustainable livelihoods programmes for the poor, as DFID acknowledges, the "methods for conducting cost-effective, linked policy and institutional analysis at multiple levels are not well developed" (DFID 1999).

In order to improve the analysis and understanding of institutions and sustainable livelihoods, the objectives of this paper are: (1) to improve an understanding of the types of institutions and institutional relationships or interfaces that influence and are influenced by livelihoods, especially those of the poor; (2) to present some illustrations of institutions and institutional arrangements designed to support livelihoods; and (3) to suggest ways in which the methods for institutional analysis might be improved.

The paper is organized into four sections. The next section deals with the distinction used in this paper between the terms organizations and institutions. Based on this distinction, it introduces a proposal for dividing institutions into five related but distinct categories. The assumption underlying this proposal is that thinking about separate categories of institutions can improve development programmes designed to promote the sustainable livelihoods of the poor. Section III briefly reviews how different disciplinary-based perspectives clarify and advance an understanding of institutions. Section IV draws on a range of empirical evidence to explore various types of interinstitutional relationships or interfaces. This is followed in Section V by a presentation of some new approaches to the development of institutions and interrelationships. Section VI outlines some preliminary programme and policy implications that might be drawn from the discussion in the previous sections of this paper.


Development practitioners and scholars tend to use the terms institutions and organizations interchangeably. When a distinction, however vague, is made between the two words, it relies on the context and the way in which the words are used. For example, the phrases "governmental institutions" and "governmental organizations" might easily (at least using the English language) be interchanged. At the same time, the difference between a reference to "the organization of government" and "the institution of government" is easily recognized. While the former refers to a structure of relationships among offices or agencies, the latter deals with the norms or values that characterize and distinguish those relationships from those that are not governmental. The discussion in this paper is based on the assumption that stipulating a distinction between institutions and organizations can improve an agency's ability to design programmes that will strengthen the ways in which "transforming structures and processes" contributes to the sustainable livelihood options and strategies of the poor.

The distinction used in this paper is straightforward. The word organization is used to refer to a group, association, office, agency, company or firm as a structure of recognized and accepted roles or positions that are ordered in some relationship to one another in order to achieve a specified goal(s). As a result, the words structure and organization tend to be interchanged (see Uphoff 1992). Structures or organizations matter when we think about ways to promote sustainable livelihoods for the poor. For example, the territorial administration of government services - whether they are decentralized, de-concentrated, or devolved - determines the autonomy and authority with which public and private agencies act, and thereby directly impacts people's livelihood strategies. In remote rural areas, the organization of government (i.e. the presence or absence of a service or agency) not only affects the delivery and availability of services but also influences people's awareness and knowledge of their rights, as well as their ability to exert pressure for changes that affect their livelihoods.

Institutions refers to formal and informal norms, rules, procedures and processes that define the way in which individuals should interrelate and act. As such, institutions do not necessarily have to exist within some structure or be bounded units with physically defined characteristics in time or space. Instead of using an organization chart, as might be done to understand an organization, the operative norms, incentives or rules in practice could be used to identify an institution.2 Nevertheless, it is important to identify and account for the dynamic interrelationships that exist between organizations and institutions. In an organizational setting, such as a research or extension agency, the structure of positions can influence or reinforce certain operative norms or practices. By the same token, government or donor policies, or even popular or local norms, can change the structure of an organization. To summarize: organizations and structures provide the framework in which processes and procedures are played out, but these processes and procedures can also change the structure of organizations.3

Consistent with these distinctions, this paper replaces "policies, institutions and processes", as presented in the DFID SL framework, with reference to five categories or types of "institutions". These categories of institutions are: familial, communal, social, collective and policy/governance. For the purposes of this discussion, these categories of institutions can be briefly introduced in the following fairly simple and empirically grounded fashion. (Section IV elaborates upon each of these categories.)


Categories of institution


Familial (cultural)

Communal (community)



Policy Governance

Basis of relations & practices

Descent- or kin-based

Trust & reciprocity

Societal interest

Contractual interest

Legislative or regulatory

Familial (cultural) institutions

These cover a range of descent- or kin-based (clan, lineage, tribe) relations and practices. These are the institutions that people draw upon, or claim, to give meaning and identity to their lives and relationships. While geographic origins may be part of this identity claim, the institutions are not bound by place or location. The "joking relationship" between Bambara castes, for example, provides a special feature to interpersonal relations among Malians around the world. The household is an important familial structure, but familial institutions extend beyond specific households. These institutions prove remarkably resilient as people continue to rediscover and redefine and politicize their ethnicity and cultures in the face of powerful (and global) social and economic forces.

Communal (community) institutions

These are grounded on principles of trust and reciprocity that are commonly tied to shared physical or natural resources. Geographic place and location play a role in defining these institutions. They include a variety of familial-like and "horizontal" institutions including age-based relations and practices, commonly manifested in structures such as age-based work groups that are found in much of sub-Saharan Africa.4

Social institutions

These usually embody some principles of trust and reciprocity, but the norms or codes of conduct are derived from a societal interest. These include religious or spiritual-based relationships as well as "vertical" institutions, such as various types of patron-client relations (e.g. the relations between peasants and their marabouts in the Senegalese Peanut Basin) as well as other society-defined groups, such as hunters or blacksmiths.

Collective institutions

These are institutions in which the relations and practices are defined as contractual. In addition to the widely studied common property resource institutions, collective institutions include a range of practices and relations concerning various types of production, marketing and distribution activities. In these "collective" relationships, individuals have a self-defined interest and relationships may take on a market-like nature. The rules of the game, or the working rules, of these institutions are defined principally outside those that characterize familial, communal and social relations and processes. Nevertheless, the overlap between collective and other types of institutions is commonly a source for many of the issues confronting organizations based on market-like norms.

Policy/governance institutions

These consist of constitutional or juridical conditions and stipulations, policies and specific legislation or regulations, as well as the norms that guide public action and conduct, including those guiding the programmes of government technical services. This category covers a broad sweep of institutions, from official or governmental land tenure and property rights laws and regulations to the norms and practices of agricultural research and extension.

Table 1 summarizes the five categories of institutions.

When using these categories of "institutions" or "transforming processes" in designing programmes to promote sustainable livelihoods for the poor, there are four important issues to consider. First, while these institutions tend to be seen at specific points in time, they are important in livelihoods throughout people's lives and across space. The importance of understanding changes in familial relations and practices over time has been accepted for several years. For example, farm-level studies in Senegal's Peanut Basin starting in the mid-1960s, tracking the ways in which changing familial relations created an ebb-and-flow pattern in household livelihood strategies.5 Equally important, space may be only one part of how these institutions are defined in people's livelihoods. Much of the field-level analysis of familial institutions will continue to be undertaken in geographically defined or "bounded" spaces. But a growing understanding of a whole series of increasingly global social, political and economic dynamics, such as long-distance migration, obliges analysts to find ways to break away from spatially defined familial, social and communal institutions.6

Second, each category of institutions includes both formal and informal relations and practices. Responsibilities and operating procedures may be well defined and even codified, but many institutional processes are simply and informally acknowledged as the "way things are done". Similarly, institutions with written rules and procedures are not more advanced or sophisticated than those with unwritten procedures. Consequently, institutions do not evolve from informal to formal. In thinking about institutions, it is the rules in practice that count.

Third, these categories of institutions do not exist in any hierarchical relationship to one another. Familial institutions are not "lower" than collective institutions; nor are policy institutions "higher" than social or community institutions. They are simply different types of institutions, and one category of institutions does not exist in any necessary functional or dependency relationship to any other category of institutions.

Fourth, relationships among categories of institutions can be seen in two ways. First, the overlap between or among institutions influences livelihood strategies. For example, access to fertile valley land in Rwanda often depends on the ways in which the norms and practices of familial institutions are used to take advantage of opportunities for land that are stipulated by the norms of collective and policy institutions. Second, some institutions may be seen as nested in others. Many village-based collective institutions - such as village associations in Mali - are nested in the policy institutions of the government and of the national cotton company. Most common property resource institutions also exhibit this kind of relationship. A less obvious but equally important illustration involves the way in which familial and communal institutions are nested within collective institutions, such as the Malian village associations. In other words, largely externally created arrangements among farmers are commonly based on a series of assumptions about familial and communal relations and practices.

The advantage of substituting "institutions" for "transforming practices" is twofold. First, it helps distinguish among institutions and separate an analysis of them into categories that correspond to real-life conditions. In doing so, it does not sacrifice an ability to consider these institutions and their impact on livelihood assets and strategies as part of larger-scale realities. Second, these categories, and their overlapping or nested relationships, help to clarify how various disciplinary perspectives can be used to improve an understanding of the impact of these institutions on livelihood assets and strategies.


Economic analysis

Economic analysis helps to make assessments of and identify decisions related to the costs and benefits of people's choices concerning the creation, allocation and distribution of livelihood assets or capital. By trying to identify the costs and benefits of different decisions, economists offer one way to weigh or consider the trade-offs among various types of human and physical capital investments. More specifically, economists concerned with environmental issues also assist in the evaluation of the direct use, indirect use and non-use values of natural assets. Finally, some economists have started to improve the understanding of social capital and, in particular, how it becomes restructured and more important ("deepened") - not less important - as market-based relations become more significant in people's livelihood strategies (Stiglitz 1999).

Without question, economic analysis - especially in the institutional and neo-institutional tradition - helps to address many key institutional questions. Such questions might include: What incentives stimulate people to make particular choices concerning livelihood strategies? What rules, norms, etc., affect people's access to assets? How do institutional relations and practices influence the ways in which people are able to transform their assets?

Economic analysis also provides especially important insights into assessments of the role and contribution of collective and policy institutions. The "logic" that governs the conditions for practices and relations in collective institutions, such as special incentives, side benefits or even some form of coercion, has become an unquestioned part of how we think about collective relationships and practices. Whether in credit groups, unions or irrigation associations - structures with norms or conditions that do not allow any one individual to be excluded from the benefits of the joint effort - the absence of specific rules or incentives will encourage people to freeload off the efforts of others in pursuit of their livelihood strategies.

Similarly, economic analysis has proven both powerful and highly influential in looking at policy institutions, especially with respect to market-based approaches to the production and allocation of resources. Thinking about people as "rational actors" - a concept drawn largely from neoclassical economics - allows analysts to identify the incentives that influence how people choose among or invest in different livelihood strategies. In particular, this concept allows economists to examine how "market forces" influence and stimulate people's calculation of the costs and benefits of their livelihood decisions.

Political analysis

For many years, political scientists have drawn heavily on the concepts of rational actors and public choice - as formulated by economists - in order to deal with the classic political questions of who gets what, when and how. Often referred to as the "new institutionalists", these development scholars have significantly improved an understanding of both collective and policy/governance institutions, especially those established to deal with the management of many types of common property resources.

Specifically, this new institutional approach focuses on the idea that special incentives or benefits encourage people to assume the burden of organizing collective action. With the right incentives, new opportunities and options for livelihood strategies might be created. Moreover, by looking at institutions as "sets of working rules", one can identify a range of ways in which people might use various types of rules to bring about organizational change (Ostrom 1990).

In addition, work by political scientists demonstrates the importance of identifying how political ideologies and agendas are used to shape governmental institutions and structures that provide access for some groups or interests at the expense of others. As Bates (1990) notes, we must account for people's political beliefs and values in determining options and opportunities for sustainable livelihood strategies.

Historically, political scientists have identified and described the "transforming structures" - in both the public and private sector - that "set and implement policy and legislation, deliver services, purchase, trade and perform all manner of other functions that affect livelihoods" (DFID 1999). Indeed, the continuing global sweep of democratization has given a new life to a wide range of "democracy and governance" concerns ranging from electoral reforms to identifying the conditions for and effects of governmental decentralization, de-concentration and devolution.

These structures include the constitutional and regulatory rules that protect and facilitate freedom of organization and speech or that set the conditions for the territorial administration of government. The concept of "political opportunity structures" offers a people-centred way of thinking about policy/governance institutions, structures and their interrelationships (Jenkins 1995). Despite the outward signs of political liberalization through elections, etc., various types of administrative rules and regulations may continue to limit access to policy-makers or serve to discourage some from organizing to defend their interests. For example, the enforcement of complex registration procedures and high registration fees continues to be a commonly known means of controlling the emergence of popular groups.

This concept also encourages a closer examination of the democratic impact of territorial decentralization, de-concentration or even the devolution of governmental authority. As Uphoff (1997) notes, the territorial decentralization of government does not necessarily lead to increased governmental accountability or to the enhancement of local people's capabilities. In a similar fashion, the operative norms within public agencies exert a significant influence on people's opportunity structures and their options for livelihood strategies. Private bargains based on the use of public rules and position for personal gain often characterize the relations among field-level governmental agents and local people in many natural-resource management programmes.

Anthropological analysis

For many in applied research and development work, anthropological inquiries - especially ethnographic and kinship analysis - continue to inform their field-level inquiry and practice. As the continuing debate over the moral economy, political ecology, etc., of peasants attests, anthropological tools are indispensable for understanding not only the relations and practices of familial, communal and social institutions, but also a range of interinstitutional relationships that are directly relevant to assessing people's livelihood strategies.

Anthropologically based and ethnographic inquiries offer important insights (and field research methods) into the cultural constitution of "community" and the ways in which people draw upon their intertwined cultural and value systems to give meaning to their lives and relationships. Claims of descent to clan, lineage, tribe or caste continue to be used to acquire and deny access to capital and physical and natural resources. Thus, an identification of lineage relationships helps one understand the cultural structure of access to and control over productive and reproductive resources. Moreover, by examining how people adjust, and sometimes transform, their culturally based identities and relationships in response to changing socio-economic, historical and ecological forces, analysts gain insight into the dynamic and evolving ways in which people call upon stratification systems and ethnicity to create their livelihood strategies.

The concept of "organizing practices" (and more specifically, how institutions "transform" livelihood decisions and strategies) is one way to think about this type of change. This concept draws attention to the ways in which individuals organize themselves in their everyday lives and how they use networks of cultural and social relations in defining and giving meaning to their livelihood strategies. Instead of looking at "bounded" or "traditional" relations, norms or rules, this concept encourages the identification of the "flow of action", or what is going on, why it is going on and who engages in it, with whom, when and how often. Further, through this type of inquiry an appreciation of how people use and give meaning to "repertoires" of different lifestyles, cultural forms and rationalities can be developed. In short, this concept prompts us to identify those "larger frames of meaning and action" that individuals might use in choosing livelihood strategies (see Long 1992; Nuijten 1992). Such concepts offer interesting insights into understanding "rural folks' increasingly problematic model of the village community". As van Binsbergen (1998) argues, the changing communication technologies that are critical to the process of globalization open up "new spaces and new times within new boundaries that were hitherto inconceivable"; the "socially local" is no longer necessarily the "geographically near".

Sociological analysis

Farming systems researchers discovered many years ago that households could not be seen as homogenous units. Inequalities and negotiations over the distribution of work and resources, by sex and age, prevail. In short, households are comprised of differing interests that influence decisions concerning the options to pursue as well as the outcomes of livelihood strategies. A family's welfare commonly depends upon the life stage of the household, as well as the gender division of labour and access to earnings. More specifically, it is important to understand the ways in which variations in household leadership and dynamics influence which members have access to various sources and types of capital.

Consistent with this multidimensional perspective on households, sociological analysis directs attention to the ways at the "community" (village) level that people use their differential access to capital to mobilize allies and supporters in ongoing negotiations over property rights, production and exchange. Just as households are not homogenous units, communities or villages are the terrain for shifting patterns of conflicts, alliances and manoeuvres. Villages are not "havens of peace and tranquillity", and it is important to understand livelihood strategies as being designed and carried out in a context of social interdependence and support that is also fluid and contested. Decisions based as much on community relations as on calculations of self-interest may influence livelihood strategies (see Anderson 1994).

Summary - our disciplinary-based tools

This brief overview indicates that the questions raised in several disciplines are useful for developing methods that could respond to DFID's concern for "cost-effective, linked policy and institutional analysis at multiple levels". At first glance, the applicability of some of these disciplinary tools might appear limited to specific categories of institutions (e.g. applying rational actor analysis only to collective institutions). The continuing convergence of methodological and conceptual concepts and approaches across the disciplines, however, encourages more cross-disciplinary approaches. Moreover, the designing of more cross-disciplinary field research on the transforming role of structures and institutions in sustainable livelihoods might also relieve many of the normative and conceptual tensions raised by currently defined disciplinary approaches (Bates 1990; see e.g. Bromley 1998).

Based on this outline of different disciplinary-based perspectives on institutions, the next section returns to our five categories of institutions to explore various interinstitutional "interfaces" as well as structural-institutional relationships.


Livelihoods and livelihood strategies are crafted and played out within the context of various and varying sets or matrixes of institutions. Interinstitutional relationships often provide the sources of capital upon which people draw in order to craft and pursue their livelihood strategies. These relationships may also create the opportunities to generate new forms of capital. (In fact, one of the most significant contributions of sustainable livelihoods programmes may lie in the attention given to promoting opportunities for the regeneration of various types of assets or capital.)

Despite the significance of interinstitutional relationships to capital regeneration, the review of these relationships and how they influence access to and the use of livelihood assets has been limited. DFID examines only, for example, what is called the "governance structure", or the overall relationship between the transforming structures and processes and communities and individuals. Consequently, in order to sharpen use of the SL framework in development planning, this section identifies and explores a variety of institutional, as well as institutional-structural, interrelationships. Special attention is paid to the ways in which these interfaces influence the creation and transformation of, access to and accumulation or reduction of assets. Insights from such an exercise should help to design development activities that respond more effectively to the multi-institutional characteristic of peoples' livelihoods and livelihood strategies.

Familial institutions

Families and kin networks - familial institutions - have the primary responsibility in society for the care of children and the elderly. These institutions and descent-based claims also exert a powerful influence on the opportunities for and organization and assurance of livelihood activities. Throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, these institutions determine who can access, mobilize or control different types of capital. Strong norms and customs determine the allocation of land and labour among individuals by gender, age and marital status. These same norms control access to other forms of capital, including financial, physical (supplies and services) and, perhaps most important, human - especially education.

In many parts of the world, these norms incorporate a powerful gender bias against women. Men tend to control most productive and reproductive decisions, as well as household expenses.

Familial norms usually discourage education for female children and thereby seek to limit their capabilities. At the same time, these norms permit women (not without some additional burden) to cultivate individual or personal fields (usually the less fertile areas of a family's holdings and frequently without secure tenure rights) that can be used to help enhance their own portfolio of resources or gain access to new or additional assets.

These same norms may also allow or encourage women to acquire special knowledge about natural resources such as medicinal plants, trees and tree products (Bergeret 1990). In many parts of Africa, this special knowledge is a source both for assuring family well-being and of income for women. Familial norms underlie and also exert an important influence on the definition of gender-based access to different assets and types of capital. Without attention to the interrelationships or interface of familial with other institutions, however, "(women's) projects" that commonly seek to respond to interests defined only in familial terms frequently fail to generate long-term investment opportunities for women.

Policy/governance institutions, especially those addressing property rights, land tenure and access to credit, often reinforce the limits, as defined in familial institutions, on women's access to assets. As more democratically based institutions arise in many countries, the reform of such laws and regulations are becoming part of the new political agenda. Shortly after the 1991 coup d'état in Mali, for example, the Rural Estates General and the General Plan for Rural Development called for important changes in land tenure and resource management laws that would directly benefit women (Bingen 1994). There is, however, an unfortunately increasing number of societies seeking to rebuild from years of armed conflict or genocide that have left a significant number of households without male members. In these societies the continuation of these laws and regulations leaves many surviving wives without secure access to land or access to financial capital to help reconstruct their lives (Barriére 1997).

In response to constraints defined by familial institutions, and sometimes reinforced by policy/governance institutions, a variety of community and social institutions frequently provide women important opportunities for asset accumulation and improved family welfare. Throughout most of Sahelian Africa, for example, women look to communal norms and practices for jointly collecting and processing shea nuts. In many areas, individual sales from the product of these joint endeavours may represent as much as 60 percent of a woman's annual income (Simpson 1999).

In collective or market-like institutions, family and kin relationships may embody several advantages - at least until more collective or market-like interests become established. In principle, these relationships may limit opportunistic behaviour. Kin relations may be called upon as a rationale for pooling resources, and because of their affective ties, family members may make claims that shared language, moral standards and expectations provide a foundation for their "stake" in a more collective-based institutional relationships (Ostrom, Schroeder and Wynne 1993). As frequently observed, however, conflicts and patterns of authority in familial institutions can spill over and impede the effectiveness of collective institutions to deal with technological change or economic opportunities.

Communal (community) institutions

The establishment of these institutions draws upon existing sources of social capital. In turn, through relations of trust and reciprocity, these institutions help renew or create new forms of social capital. Since geographic location contributes to the definition of these institutions, the institutions frequently arise to manage or deal with some conflict related to physical and natural resources.

In southern Mali, for example, an externally funded participatory research programme for natural resource management helped villagers in six villages diagnose and deal with the natural resource degradation by outsiders of their forests and pastures. In the absence of effective policy/governance institutions - governmental rules and regulations - the villagers created SIWAA, an intervillage group designed to control wood exploitation by outsiders and restrict access to pastures for non-local livestock herders. Drawing upon existing social interrelationships - social capital - the villagers were able to develop accepted norms and practices that allowed them to identify shared problems, gather information about these problems and negotiate and reconcile their differing points of view and expectations. As they produced a new form of social capital through their interaction, they were able to formulate new rules governing the exploitation of forest resources and access to community pastures by non-locals (Joldersma et al. 1994).

The social capital that emerges through a communal institution, however, will often be insufficient to deal with the kinds of issues for which collective institutions are more appropriate, especially in the absence of supportive policy institutions. In the case of SIWAA, villagers were unable to draw upon communal norms to mobilize the collective labour required to build and maintain anti-erosion measures. The continued absence of policies that were supportive of their efforts also jeopardized the longer-term accomplishments that arose from the communities' relationships. Under these conditions, and in order to realize their long-term soil conservation objectives, the villagers would need to set aside customary interests based on trust and reciprocity in favour of those defined on contractual or more market-like interests.

National policies frequently disregard local natural resource management practices (see e.g. Toye 1992). Michael Richards's (1997) work on community property resources and forest management in Latin America illustrates, as well, how governmental regulations erode community property resource institutions by failing to accept the broad-based tenure rights of forestry- and fishery-dependent people. In fact, Richards argues that many natural resources problems are less a function of a "tragedy of the commons" and more a result of inappropriate policy and institutional support that precludes local institutions from achieving environmental and equity goals.

Cases from around the world illustrate other ways in which the governance norms in governmental conservation, natural resource management and forestry departments allow field-level agents to abuse the authority of their positions. In Madagascar, the top-down governmental administrative structure seriously jeopardized any gains from efforts to build on local processes of decision-making and conflict management (Gezon 1997). Similarly, villagers in Arvari (Alwar District, Rajasthan) called on outside support to help them protect natural resource conservation sanctuaries and reserves that had become subject to abuse by forestry officials and by private interests acting with the acknowledgement of government officials (reported in Down to Earth, 15 March 1999).

Social institutions

Social institutions draw upon principles of trust and reciprocity but rely more on broader societal interests that arise from concerns to promote their socio-economic development. Community and sometimes age-based collective-labour groups, such as the dabo in Ethiopia (see Abatena 1987) and the ton in Mali, are well-known sources for mobilizing responses to a wide range of concerns, from road maintenance to self-help projects. Other types, such as the women's collective shea nut harvesting and processing groups in Mali, represent a long-standing collective tradition among village women that allows each of them access to an independent source of income. In all cases, people develop sets of norms and practices - based on mutual trust and confidence - to mobilize their resources and tackle societal problems.

Islamic financing schemes designed to respect the Islamic prohibition of usury illustrate ways in which the religious (social) norms can be reconciled with basically collective or market-like norms. According to the Islamic laws of Sharia in the Koran, charging interest on loans is considered exploitative and strongly forbidden. In response, several collective institutions have been created that embody the social principles consistent with non interest-charging investments.

The musharaka is a form of joint-venture financing in which the lender provides the loan without charging an interest rate and under specified conditions, agreeing to share the profits and losses from the use of the loan. Others, such as the murabaha, the mudaraba and the quard hassan, respectively provide working capital financing, trustee profit-sharing and benevolent or interest-free loans (Lee n.d.).

Traditional religious oath-taking by cotton producers demonstrates another form of interface between social and collective institutions. Since farmers had successfully negotiated problems with the national cotton company for years, they were shocked and insulted in early 1991 when the company categorically refused to discuss their demands. In response they decided to demonstrate and threatened destruction of the area's cotton ginning factory. While many of these farmers had collaborated over time on various activities, these relationships provided no rules or norms for carrying forward their threatened demonstration. As a result, they agreed to use a traditional religious custom of oath-taking and fetish ceremony for guidance and to ensure success (Soké 1993).

The SOS-Sahel experience with seed supply in northern Ethiopia reveals other ways in which (local) social institutions - through a structure like the kire, a mutual insurance scheme to offset burial costs - can interface with (national and international) policy institutions. In this case, the norms and practices of local institutional legitimacy, transparency and accountability provided the foundation for carrying out programmes based on specific targeting, distribution goals and management practices. Local institutions and systems of interhousehold cooperation were not only central to community-level coping strategies in response to food insecurity, but also crucial in building a bridge between relief and development (Pratten 1997).

Collective institutions

These institutions arise from or are created around people's contractual or market-like interests. In contrast to those of social institutions, the rules and norms of collective institutions constrain people's interests that are commonly seen as economic or as embodying some recognized self-interest. These are types of institutions that many development programmes seek to foster in the design of a wide variety of structures, from associations for resource management (irrigation, natural resources) to cooperative marketing or credit groups.

The relationships or interfaces of collective institutions to familial, communal and social institutions are central to understanding many "collective action" institutions. Norms derived from interpersonal, culturally based relations and social networks influence the creation of most types of collective institutions and structures, such as credit and marketing groups. Over time, however, these "founding" norms evolve and become more specifically defined in the context of the collective institution. The continuing and dynamic tension between customary and contractual principles creates one of the most challenging issues confronting leaders of farmers' unions or associations that are based on collective norms (Bingen, Carney & Dembelé 1995).

This evolution of norms in collective institutions from the largely customary principles to interests based on largely contractual principles is neither uniform nor complete. This dynamic relationship has not received much attention and is therefore commonly misunderstood. In fact, it can be argued that much of the continuing either-or debate within the development community over the choice between privatization and governmental intervention as the means to "solve" common property "tragedies" or "collective-action problems" is based on the perception that familial, communal or social norms must evolve into collective norms. The participatory nature of SL approaches should generate the kind of information that identifies, builds upon and improves an understanding of the continuing interplay of these sets of norms. The generation of this kind of information might help analysts move beyond not only the assumptions of a linear development process that are embodied in many development projects but also the current confines of the public-vs.-private debate within the development community.7

A major challenge for the sustainable livelihoods approach lies in exploring and reassessing the ways in which collective institutions embody several types of interinstitutional relationships, how these change over time, and how people define their livelihood strategies within this interinstitutional context. Ostrom's (1990) notion of nested sets of rules offers one way of thinking about these continuing dynamics or tensions that are frequently observed in cooperative and associational structures conceived and built around collective norms.

A growing body of empirical evidence addresses these multiple interfaces. Stephen's (1991) study of craft production, for example, found that successful entrepreneurship and self-management helped to reinforce cultural identity. Familial institutions mediate and redirect possible economic conflict based on producing and selling crafts. But at the same time, this economic activity, which as Stephen reported amounted to a commoditization of an externally defined indigenous identity, resulted in a reinforcement of community institutions. On the other hand, the vulnerability of familial, communal and social institutions to more individualistic incentive norms can significantly alter people's livelihood options. As Richards (1997) found, even though some Amerindian groups respond positively to structures of market-oriented natural forest management, for others these norms clash with their cosmological world-views and tend to erode the indigenous institutions that regulate extractive practices and incentives to cooperate.

Throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa as well, an ability to understand the "nested nature" of institutions might help us not only move beyond the state-vs.-private-sector debate concerning credit, market and common property management structures, but also improve an assessment of how people pursue livelihood options in an interinstitutional context. In Mali, long-standing interpersonal relations determined the ways in which farmers in the Niger Upper Valley region organized themselves into different village-level groups to access crop production credit and acquire equipment and supplies. As these groups confronted new opportunities for expanding their activities (setting up community health centres or consumer goods stores), they were able to draw upon these familial, cultural and social norms to devise new sets of rules for these new activities. In contrast, as the continuing crises confronting the village associations established by the national cotton agency illustrate, sets of collective norms cannot be imposed over familial and social norms (Bingen 1998; Bingen, Simpson and Berthé 1993).

Policy/governance institutions

Constitutional, legislative, regulatory and administrative norms and procedures both set the stage and influence the ways in which other people may use other institutions to pursue livelihood strategies. As suggested earlier, these institutions and structures affect who gets what, when and how. They also influence who sets what rules, when and how. (see Hyden 1998).

Recent experiences with integrated conservation and development programmes in Madagascar are repeated in other regions (see Silva 1994) and demonstrate how intertwined international and national policies - in the name of development and conservation - can effectively preclude local people from decisions that directly influence their livelihoods. Despite the commitment by project personnel to participatory approaches with local people as full partners, the "larger institutional infrastructure" of national governmental and international agencies' policies and priorities not only keep effective and consistent participation low but also work to benefit certain segments of the population at the expense of others. Promoting sustainable livelihoods requires, as Gezon (1997, 469) an " ... increasingly nuanced understanding of the way local contexts articulate with regional, national, and even international levels of political and economic analysis ...".

As noted earlier, policy institutions may reinforce the rules and norms practised in familial and communal institutions and thereby exclude some - especially women - from access to specific types of capital. Similarly, the operating rules that govern agencies responsible for the development and diffusion of technology may also limit opportunities for some people while creating and strengthening opportunities for others.

Commodity-focused agricultural research - based on norms of scientific inquiry and practice and reinforced by other policy institutions that set the priorities of donor agencies - frequently either does not respond to the needs of small-scale farmers or serves the interests only of more highly capitalized growers. These types of policy norms underlie many of the continuing critiques of "green revolution"-type technologies. They also help to explain why many efforts to restructure agricultural research by introducing farming system programmes have failed. In short, a structural solution is an inappropriate response to a more fundamental institutional issue.

Similarly, identifying the operative policy norms helps to clarify many of the problematic issues raised by most governmental agricultural extension programmes. Goals, specific objectives and ranked priorities frequently drive the organization of extension programmes, the responsibilities assigned to personnel and the system of rewards within this system. (In many instances, these norms arise as a response to governmental budgeting norms and practices that allocate budgetary and personnel resources based on "success" measured in terms of clear "performance" criteria.) For example, with rewards tied to quantifiable accomplishments such as area under cultivation, production or purchases and use of new technology, field agents commonly work principally with "model farmers", who often tend to be more highly capitalized or sometimes younger.

While the rhetoric of the "progressive farmer" frequently provides the rationale for this approach, it may create unnecessary and unproductive conflicts that limit livelihood options at the village level (Jonckers 1994). Similar rules and incentives also help explain the short-lived nature of many externally created "extension groups". Not only do many such groups bear little relationship to local-level institutions, but they also are rarely given the opportunity to develop their own norms or sets of practices. Permitting this kind of flexibility and programming would require fundamental shifts in the culture, roles, values and incentives of most research and extension agencies. As Narayan (1999) suggests, agencies would need to move from " ... seeing themselves as suppliers of inputs ... to supporters of inclusive local organizations and enablers of resource flows".

These norms are not uniquely governmental and they also help explain why the distributive impact of many non-governmental programmes may also be quite limited. In the Niger Upper Valley in Mali, for example, non-governmental agencies tended to implement predetermined programmes - discussed and "approved" by villagers - and to limit their activities to villages already covered by the regional extension service (Bingen, Simpson & Berthé 1993).

The growing attention paid to the relationship between human rights, citizenship, judicial reform and the rule of law on the one hand and development on the other offers new opportunities for the poor to use policy/governance institutions to protect and support their livelihood strategies. While agrarian and peasant movements around the world have used the law for years to seek recognition of their claims, many of these conflicts have recently become more broadly oriented to concerns for citizenship, human rights and political autonomy. During the late 1990s, for example, Gareth Jones traced the ways in which several communities (ejidos) in Puebla appropriated the Mexican law and legal system to resist State intervention. The provisions of the law and court decisions did not influence the outcome of the resistance, but as Jones (1998) notes, the "law intervened at a number of levels to dictate the course of resistance"8 (520).


This section draws on several cases that illustrate the ways in which attention to institutions and institutional interfaces, as discussed in previous sections, is critical to the success of efforts to improve the livelihood strategies of the poor.9 These cases also illustrate the importance of understanding the dynamic relationships between institutions and structures, as well as the interrelationships between various types of capital and institutional change. Similar to the cases presented as "reasons for hope" by Krishna, Uphoff and Esman (1997), the cases in this section reinforce the importance of understanding the ever-changing, multi- and interinstitutional relationships in sustainable livelihood initiatives. As the cases illustrate, an examination of the institutional character of these initiatives helps us to understand how "change needs to come simultaneously from above and below" (5).

The cases are organized and discussed in terms of three general and common thematic categories: natural resource management, multisector activities and agriculture. Donor agencies and governments frequently use these categories to classify development activities and programmes, but as the cases illustrate, similar types of institutional, interinstitutional and institutional-structural relationships are important to the success of efforts in all sectors.

Natural resource management

Familial and communal institutions, instead of acting as constraints on development - an underlying assumption in many early discussions of "modernization" - enable people to understand and come to terms with change. The combined efforts of both social and policy/governance institutions can help empower people to draw upon these institutions as they seek to design new livelihood strategies.

In the Philippines, after the overthrow of the Marcos regime, new national policies gave indigenous people rights of self-determination over all natural resources within their ancestral domains. Before these rights could be assigned, however, communities needed to settle land claims among themselves and with neighbouring communities. To do so, the people in the Cordillera region, with help from PANCORDI, a coalition of women's groups committed to reviving institutions concerned with ancestral domains, looked to the norms and principles inherent in their indigenous cooperative groups and councils of elders. These institutions possessed the legitimacy and capacity to deal with these issues, and the women's network helped to build bridges between the local communities and government agencies by "translating" these norms and practices in ways that were consistent with the principles underlying the government's requirements for the preparation of ancestral domain resource management plans. More important, as people drew upon both national law and local customs in order to design these plans, they created a new capacity (social capital) for ongoing collaboration across a range of development concerns.

In a similar fashion, a watershed development programme in Rajasthan highlights how two important changes in policy/governance institutions reinforced people's efforts to draw upon their communal traditions. First, a State-level coordination committee comprised of senior policy-makers helped to find ways of fostering interdepartmental agreements and for modifying financial rules and accounting procedures that allowed government agencies to transfer public funds to the non-statutory user committees. Second, and equally important, bureaucratic norms and incentives were modified in order to motivate field staff to help villagers build their local committees. Despite fairly rigid civil-service rules, the Department of Watershed Development devised several innovative methods for keeping department staff highly motivated and committed to developing effective solutions for the problems they encountered in the field. Field-level personnel were rewarded for being innovative and were not penalized for experiments that failed. With this kind of support, the user committees were able to build upon their successes in achieving self-sufficiency in food, fodder and fuelwood, and take the initiative for new development activities ranging from literacy to savings and poultry- and rabbit-raising.

Another watershed initiative from the Alwar District in Rajasthan demonstrates the contribution that non-governmental organizations can make in helping people rebuild the system of johads, a forgotten village (communal) institution whose importance for water management was significantly intertwined with major life events and ceremonies surrounding birth, marriage and death. In the face of considerable bureaucratic opposition, the non-governmental organization TBS (Tarun Bharat Sangh) helped villagers establish clear procedures for mobilizing their resources for the construction and maintenance of johads. Each village devised its own management system and informal structure (Gram Sabha) in which all households were represented and relied on consensus for assigning tasks (Samantaray 1998).

As these cases illustrate, communal and social institutions offer an important foundation and source of strength for policies and programmes designed to enhance the livelihood strategies of the poor. Unfortunately, the cases where these institutions are deliberately overlooked or subverted - often in the name of "development" - are all too common.10

Each of these cases illustrates as well the importance of interinstitutional alliances mediated by different types of organizations. In each, non-governmental organizations with a commitment to helping villagers rediscover the power of their social and communal institutions were instrumental in developing responses that combined changes in policy and governance institutions with those in village-level institutions. However, as the work of the World Wide Fund for Nature with the rubber tappers in Rondônia, Brazil, shows, such alliances do not necessarily lead to short-run improvements in livelihoods. Consistent with its own policies and priorities, the WWF did help to strengthen the organizational and administrative capability of rubber tapper organizations. While this helped establish a mutually beneficial relationship with the tappers, it left rubber tapper families feeling economically and socially disempowered. The alliance with WWF did not respond to the tappers' concerns for higher incomes to satisfy physical and material needs or to improve their access to health and education services (Brown & Rosendo 2000).

Multisector activities

Since Geertz's seminal 1962 discussion , rotating credit associations have been characterized as playing somewhat different roles in the development process. For Geertz, this type of association was an "intermediate" or "middle-rung" institution that was "essentially a device by means of which traditionalistic forms of social relationship are mobilized so as to fulfil non-traditionalistic forms of economic functions ... They acted as `a bridge between peasant and trader attitudes toward money and its uses'" (242). In contrast, Kurtz (1973) argued about ten years later that these associations did not serve as vehicles for capital formation or for training peasants to participate in national economic institutions. Instead, they represented adaptations to poverty conditions that forced people to make survival or livelihood decisions outside of a national or governmental institutional matrix. More recently, others have drawn attention to the role of rotating savings and credit associations in compensating for the failures of existing formal financial markets and their contribution to saving mobilization that provides the working capital for micro and small enterprises (see Kimuyu 1999; Mutua et al. 1996).

Despite these different perspectives on the role of rotating savings and credit associations in development, they all recognize the importance of identifying how the combined institutional and structural features of these associations enhance the livelihood strategies of the poor. The Sri Lankan SANASA help to illustrate this point.

Sri Lankan savings and credit cooperatives, SANASA, operate according to cooperative principles to collect savings from members and disburse the savings as loans. The success of the movement stems from the strength of its primary societies, but until a nationwide reorganization in 1978, these groups were not much more than local savings clubs. This reorganization contributed to a transformation of these cooperatives by redefining significant governing policies in two important ways. First, it put training front and centre and led to the establishment of a national training campus for one-week residential training courses throughout the year. It also empowered district unions to become the primary units for continuing education and for fostering lateral links or exchanges among the societies. Second, it allowed the district unions to assume broader responsibilities as financial institutions and to attract external technical expertise and financial resources.

The success of SANASA is linked equally to the power of its operating principles at the local level. Membership in a primary society is open to all members of a community, including women and the poor, on the condition that they accept the principles of cooperative banking. This gives community members the opportunity to work together on equal terms and to use the society as a forum for discussing problems and resolving conflicts. Moreover, this allows each society to put a community's most valuable resource - money - to use. "By increasingly mobilizing more and more local funds, the societies demonstrate opportunities for growth without relying on external inputs of capital" (Kiriwandeniya 1997, 62). Furthermore, each society has found its own way of ensuring leadership accountability and reducing the possibility of exploitation.11

The need to consider the forces of globalization and transnational processes in institutional analysis, and especially in considering the livelihood strategies of the poor, is both increasingly apparent and important.12 Migrant associations, for example, offer one opportunity to consider these global dynamics and policy/governance institutions as they influence the contribution that migrant associations can make to improve the welfare of local households in the country of origin. In Oaxaca, Mexico, a non-governmental organization, ORO, has been instrumental in helping these associations improve the contribution of remittances to local community development, stimulate more local community initiatives, and attract new financial and technical support. As Oaxacan state government regulations became more supportive of migrants' associations efforts to finance development projects in their home villages, ORO helped several associations to create a new programme for international solidarity. In one case, the New Hope (Nueva Esperanza) migrant association emerged as a source of support for a range of development activities, such as financial help for a kindergarten, the construction of a drainage system and an irrigation dam and the creation of a tourist corridor to promote local handicraft activities. In approved projects, New Hope provides the financial, technical and logistic support, and in return the community provides the labour force and keeps the ventures in good order.


The Gal Oya irrigation improvement project in Sri Lanka clearly demonstrates the importance of allowing collective institutions to create their own social capital. The diverse social and cultural backgrounds of farmer settlers in the large Gal Oya settlement and irrigation scheme for years created difficulties for the establishment of farmer groups that could develop the kind of interdependence required to manage a large irrigation scheme. In the socially and culturally heterogeneous settlement, the absence of social capital based on kinship or community bonds made it difficult for farmers to develop collective norms and practices. As a result, the establishment of farmer groups responsible for water and infrastructure management became a central feature for the rehabilitation and continued maintenance of this major irrigation facility.

In the absence of social capital upon which to draw in establishing these groups, the farmers were encouraged to create their own (collective) stock of capital by taking full responsibility for all decisions about membership, procedures and rules (i.e. creating a collective institution). This was not a one-time decision, however, but was "continuously adjusted in order to find solutions from day-to-day experience and from lessons learned through the process" (Wijayaratna & Uphoff 1997, 180). More specifically, the groups were allowed to engage in a "learning process of institution-building" that was supported by governmental policies that favoured participatory management and that provided legal support and protection for the groups.

The Plan Puebla, a well-known agricultural research and development programme that was launched in the late 1960s to increase maize production, developed an integrated approach to overcoming constraints on farmers' use of productive technologies. Support to farmer groups was an essential component of the widely known success of the plan, as was the combined (structural) contribution from research, extension and teaching at the postgraduate college at Chapingo. The institutional changes among the agricultural service agencies were equally important to the success of the plan.

Prior to Plan Puebla, most of the agencies, and especially the banks, active in the Plan Puebla area operated with procedures designed to accommodate the needs of large farmers or credit societies. As seen in many other parts of the world, these banks saw small farmers as poor credit risks and unprofitable. For their part, farmers were uninterested in seeking bank credit. As the plan acquired more international attention and was successful with small farmers, the Agricultural Bank changed its lending procedures to meet the needs of small farmers, and especially those working in small groups. With these types of institutional changes, " ... the service agencies played a vital role in increasing crop production and farm income in the Puebla area" (Cisneros et al. 1997, 134).

The emergence and current programme of the Senegal National Council for Rural Dialogue and Cooperation (CNCR) illustrates the long road to be travelled to bring about institutional change and the need for continued vigilance against "structural imperatives" taking precedence over a commitment to protecting rural interests and improving livelihood strategies. Large federations of farmer associations and groups may be required to capture the attention of policymakers, but they are subject to the same organizational norms and practices that frequently jeopardize the responsiveness of government agencies to rural people.13

During the early 1970s, the autonomous village-based associations that had sprung up alongside the State-promoted cooperatives in Senegal established district and regional associations that eventually federated into the Federation of Senegalese NGOs (FONGS). By the early 1990s, FONGS included over 2 000 village groups and an active membership of about 400 000 villagers. Despite this large rural constituency and the government's policy pronouncements to turn more development responsibility to villagers, FONGS was never invited to participate in the negotiations over the Government's New Agricultural Policy. In response, and with assistance from several donor agencies, FONGS organized an international forum to capture the attention of policy-makers and expose the failure of the Government's agricultural development policy and programmes. This forum set the stage for the establishment of the National Council for Rural Dialogue and Cooperation (CNCR) that federated all of the country's farmer and village associations - FONGS, the National Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, other federations of stockbreeders, fishers, horticulturalists, rural women and forestry workers. Based on this constituency, CNCR was able to make a convincing case that it be invited as full participant in a range of government programmes and policy discussions.

Having captured the attention of policymakers, the CNCR now confronts the need to address the relationship between its headquarters and its base in the villages. Given the size of the federation, many people are increasingly concerned about the slow co-optation of the CNCR leadership as it begins to work more closely with policy-makers than with the local membership. At issue is whether the federation will be able to create the kind of dynamic organizational norms that transfer more power and responsibility to its grassroots.

Cases from two widely different areas - tribal western India and southern Mali - reinforce the importance of a "learning process approach" that draws upon different and changing institutional resources for promoting local planning and management of agricultural and natural resource activities. As Mosse notes, "the experience of institution building is rarely that of applying successful models, but rather of working in particular contexts towards locally viable social arrangements" (Mosse and team 1996, 1).

With financial and technical support from the United Kingdom, in the early 1990s the Kribhco Indo-British Rainfed Farming Project (KRIBP) was established to improve the livelihoods of poor farming families in the Bhil tribal region of western India. Community organizers were given the responsibility and flexibility to support the development of village-level institutions based on their own analysis of the local social situation. Despite some broadly common features of social organization in the area, the organizers quickly discovered that villages were far from homogenous units. Consequently, efforts to create village-wide groups proved unworkable: they excluded some village hamlets and kin groups within villages; they tended to be dominated by established village leaders; women had a limited role; and, "membership did not imply that groups had any significant social existence" (Mosse et al. 1996, 8). In response, the KRIBP fostered the establishment of smaller (collective) groups that shared some combination of familial, communal or social norms and practices. Depending upon their specific interests, these groups undertake various agricultural- and natural-resource-management-related activities. As Mosse notes, the managerial skills of many of the groups remain weak largely because the activities that sustain villagers' interest also demand skills that the groups do not initially possess.

Similarly, the accomplishments of the NCBA/CLUSA programme in southern Mali highlight the importance of responsiveness to intravillage institutional diversity but also the need for an evolutionary programme of management skills development. From the late 1980s into the mid-1990s, CLUSA had the responsibility under a grant from USAID to strengthen and create village-level (collective) associations that could be self-directing, well managed and financially viable. Instead of assuming that each association had to conform to some organizational structure, the village-level CLUSA agents focused on offering training in basic cooperative management as well as instructions for preparing credit requests to village groups. Most of the CLUSA training and assistance focuses on helping villagers obtain and manage agricultural loans. But as different groups have gained experience and confidence in their abilities to work together, many have requested training for longer-term activities such as village consumer goods stores, grain processing mills and pharmacies (Bingen et al. 1994; Bingen, Simpson & Berthé 1993).


The UNDP methodology for the design, implementation and evaluation of SL programmes at the country level consists of a four-step process, including: a participatory assessment of the risks, assets, indigenous knowledge base, and coping and adaptive strategies of communities and individuals; the analysis of the macro, micro and sectoral policies that impinge on people's livelihood strategies; the assessment and determination of the potential contributions of science and technology that can improve livelihood systems; and the identification of social and economic investment mechanisms that might help or hinder existing livelihood strategies.

The discussion in this paper suggests that the analysis of institutions, interinstitutional and structural relationships can both strengthen the SL approach as an applied conceptual framework and inform field-level development practitioners seeking to use this methodology. First, as noted at several points in this paper, the distinction between institutions and organizations offers one relatively straightforward way to highlight the interlinkages between livelihood systems and the macro policies that affect those livelihoods. Second, institutional analysis may help to develop a more integrated (holistic) approach to environmental, social, economic and political issues. This might be achieved by "pushing" the assessment of different categories of institutions and interrelationships as discussed in this paper, as well as looking more closely at the interrelationships between various categories of institutions and various types of capital.14

The final section of the paper identifies some of the implications of the ideas and issues raised for the design, implementation, monitoring, evaluation and sustainability of projects and programmes. In addition some policy implications, especially for those agencies using the SL approach, are presented.

Programme/project design

At first, the effort to distinguish among the terms institutions and organizations or structures may appear not only cumbersome but somewhat academic. As noted earlier, in everyday conversation, as well as in many academic discussions, the words institutions and organizations are used interchangeably. The discussion in this paper suggests, however, that maintaining a distinction between norms and rules (institutions) on the one hand, and roles or position (structure/organization) on the other might sharpen both project design assessments and project or programmeme design. As the Rajasthan case illustrates, the norms and rules that underlie how government agents perform are as important as the structural or organizational framework within which they work. Consequently, using this distinction, a project design exercise might decide against structural reorganization (the most common approach) in favour of addressing underlying norms, rules or standard operating procedures.

Design activities might also consider the extent to which institutions are nested within each other and how this influences the creation of structures like producer groups. In Mali, for example, the national cotton company mistakenly assumed that villages were culturally homogenous units and therefore only needed one village association to handle all the needs of agricultural credit, supplies and marketing. It did not take long for various types of (intravillage) conflicts to erupt and threaten the viability of these associations. Even though these conflicts jeopardized the company's programme, it took several years for the company to realize that the problem was not a "village problem", but one that stemmed from an effort to impose a unitary structure over a multidimensional institutional setting.

Finally, the discussion in this paper reinforces the need for more and broader investments in human capital that cut across classes and gender. At the minimum, human capital investments offer the promise of enabling people to liberate themselves from the "ties that exclude". In particular, these investments in human capital may provide women and other marginalized groups in a society the opportunity not only to build and strengthen their other assets, but also to use them as a means for enhancing their livelihood strategies.

Programme/project implementation

As the cases above indicate, flexibility in implementation may be one of the single, most important features of new and SL approaches to development. Without question, the call for flexibility in project implementation is not new. However, if empowerment is truly a key feature of the SL approach, then SL projects need the capability to respond to (newly) empowered people's demands and concerns. Furthermore, if the SL approach accepts that social capital can be transformed in new settings (i.e. as people work together, another type of social capital emerges), then projects need the flexibility to respond to this "emergent capital" and to explore how it might be "reinvested" in other opportunities to enhance people's livelihoods. Narayan & Prichett's (1999) study of household income and social capital in rural Tanzania confirms this observation and strengthens the need for more attention, as noted above, to marginalized groups and communities. Their results emphasize the importance of broadening and localizing decision-making power, but they point out that differing levels of social capital also contribute to the differential capacity of communities to respond effectively to the delegation of power to the grassroots.

Programme/project monitoring and evaluation

If the SL approach distinguishes itself in any way from other development approaches, it does so in part through its attention to both distributive and constitutive issues. This means, as noted above, that SL programmes and projects should give as much attention to who gets what, when and how, as to who is setting what rules, when and how. In doing so, it should be possible to identify the ways in which the SL approach might be able to improve the effective functioning of different structures and processes that influence the access to assets and the livelihood strategies that are open to the poor.

Programme/project sustainability

The discussion in this paper highlights at least two somewhat different ways of examining the issue of sustainability. First, it can be argued that the SL approach will be "successful" or result in "sustainable" efforts only to the extent that it promotes the conditions for the regeneration and the accumulation of various types of capital. The concept of sustainability usually embodies some notion of the protection of future opportunities. In this case, however, it refers to giving people the opportunity to regenerate their capital stocks, or, to borrow an advertising slogan, "to be all that they can be".

Second, sustainability is clearly about dealing with constitutive issues. The Oxfam approach, for example, is based on the notion that "institutions can be a developmental aim only insofar as these institutions in turn create the opportunities for marginalized people to influence the decisions and processes affecting their lives" (Eade & Williams 1995). As DFID recognizes as well, "if people have better access to assets they will have more ability to influence structures and processes so that these become more responsive to their needs" (Carney et al. 2000).

Policy implications

This subsection offers preliminary observations on a selected number of policy concerns and issues raised by the agencies directly concerned with the SL approach.

Recent studies from the Overseas Development Institute indicate ways in which the concept of sustainable livelihoods helps to identify issues in land tenure, watershed management and integrated wildlife and livestock management programmes that might otherwise be overlooked (Adams, Sibanda & Turner 1999; Boyd et al. 1999; Turton & Farrington 1998). These studies, however, leave room for considerable additional work on the institutional dimensions of sustainable livelihoods.

Agrawal & Yadama's (1997) conclusion from their study of institutions, markets and population pressure on resources reinforces the need for closer and more specific attention to the roles of institutions and interinstitutional and structural relationships in programmes that promote sustainable livelihoods. They conclude: "to say ... that institutions are important in shaping resource management outcomes is not enough. The greater need is to specify the types of practices and sets of rules that are most important in a given context. Without a knowledge of the context, of the history and politics ... it may not be possible even to identify which aspects of institutions will be crucial, let alone assess the relative importance of different aspects" (457).

More specifically, distinguishing among categories of institutions should help agencies, such as CARE, in their effort to place local institutional development within a broader democracy and governance agenda. For example, by differentiating among institutions at the local level, agencies might find more ways to help gain support for democratic local structures and to help higher-level authorities develop appropriate strategies for working with community groups.

More generally, the discussion in this paper should begin to help clarify why decentralization, deconcentration or devolution policies are not development panaceas. As suggested above, "the ties that bind are also the ties that exclude". In other words, those "excluded" as a result of familial institutions are likely to remain so even where governments have devolved authority to local levels. As a corollary to this observation, projects that seek to enhance the livelihoods of those currently "excluded" - such as women in many societies - will need more than special projects. Because people live in multi-institutional settings, no one type of group - such as a women's group - will contribute much to the sustainability of livelihood strategies. Instead, people need allies and advocates who can help negotiate and open strategy options through nested institutional relationships.

Two final institutional issues arise from the discussion in this paper and can be presented for consideration by those committed to improving the SL approach. The first involves the twin issues of accountability and legitimacy. The SL framework is silent on these important development questions. It is known that the absence of legitimacy and accountability underlies the weaknesses (lack of sustainability) of four decades of largely top-down approaches to development. It is also known that by clarifying the institutional basis for accountability (i.e. identifying the norms against which claims are made) important insights can be gained into democratic empowerment.

To make an important difference in development practice, the SL approach must address the issues of legitimacy and accountability. It must deal with the continuing lack of (largely rural) public trust of policy institutions and governmental agencies and programmes. Given the attention to macro-micro links, and with a framework that transcends sectoral boundaries, the SL approach offers some potential for dealing with these issues. For example, to the extent that the SL approach crafts institutional arrangements that are anchored in local organizing practices (familial, community, social or collective institutions), such arrangements may embody self-defined criteria for assuring legitimacy and accountability.

Similarly, the questions of legitimacy and accountability underlie the democratic implications of decentralization programmes. On the surface, decentralization, and devolution of governmental authority in particular, promises opportunities to transform a largely de-politicized "rural population" into a "politically aware" rural constituency as public policy structures and practices come closer to the structures and practices of rural people. The emergence of and continuing discussions on public accountability and legitimacy will allow these opportunities to arise.

Second, it is increasingly apparent that peasant politics is becoming a politics of global human rights. Agrarian issues can no longer be discussed only in terms of national space. The emergence of international human rights has reconfigured "peasant politics" within a global community. In this context, international groups, many of which have been important development partners for many years, become increasingly central actors and sources of "transformation".

Goran Hyden captures the fundamental challenge in arguing that support for initiatives in the interest of sustainable livelihoods may mean challenging those in power. "There must be a firm and fundamental sense of agreement regarding which rules apply to relations between state and citizens and the interaction among the latter. [With such an agreement], the greater the chances are that the social capital and social space that organizations of the poor and disadvantaged may have obtained for themselves can be adequately confirmed ... Without the institutionalisation of such an understanding, the poor and disadvantaged will continue to face problems in realizing greater control over their livelihoods" (Hyden 1998).


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1. As noted in note 2 of Carney et al. 2000, 9: "What was previously referred to in the DFID SL framework and literature as `transforming structures and processes' is now known as `policy, institutions and processes'. The change was made to emphasize core issues and increase understanding of this aspect of the SL framework."

2. As these norms endure over time, we frequently refer to an organization as becoming "institutionalized".

3. Agrawal and Yadama successfully use this distinction in their important assessment of the effects of institutional arrangements, market forces and demographic pressures on natural resource management in Kumaon, India. As they state: "Institutions matter. The manner in which communities create, follow, and break formal and informal rules regarding the resources they control, the extent to which their autonomy of action is constrained, modulated, and facilitated by their interactions with the state, and the internal differentiation within communities along gender, case, and class dimensions are critical to understanding how resources will be used" (Agrawal and Yadama 1997: 436-437).

4. Appiah-Opoku and Hyma propose several somewhat comparable subdivisions of "indigenous institutions" that overlap with the categories proposed here but, like all classificatory systems, are developed to help them analyse several resource management questions (Appiah-Opoku & Hyma 1999).

5 Admittedly these types of dynamics are difficult to capture without a significant investment of resources in longitudinal analysis.

6 Rural-urban, regional and international long- and short-term migration, for example, has an extremely long history in livelihood strategies throughout West Africa. Few development agencies, however, have been able to incorporate these dynamics into their development programming.

7 See Ribot 1998 for some interesting insights into this issue that arose from the combined use of "access mapping" and commodity chain analysis to the charcoal trade in Senegal. In Ribot's words, "real markets are highly structured by a whole range of policy and non-policy, legal and extra-legal mechanisms" (335).

8 See also McAuslan 1998 for a discussion of the role of law in restructuring and reform of land relations and land tenure in Africa. While McAuslan concludes that there is no single right way to deal with land reform, he suggests the need for another type of "institutional reform" - namely that the legal profession adopt more policy-oriented norms and innovative approaches to dealing with the practical problems of land management.

9 The discussion of three cases (migrant associations in Oaxaca, Mexico; the Rajasthan watershed initiative; and natural resources management in Cordillera, Philippines) is drawn from manuscripts made available by FAO/SDAR. These manuscripts are being prepared for publication by FAO/SDAR.

10 See e.g. Diegues 1992; Lane 1992.

11 See also Reinke 1998 for an economic analysis of a rotating savings and credit association that concludes with a recommendation for more attention to "the requirement of social capital in participatory institutions" (573).

12 See e.g. Robinson 1998.

13 This case is based on McKeon 1999.

14 For example, recently completed Ph.D. dissertation research in Thailand that draws on both economic and sociological analysis to explore the ways in which social capital (in the form of household-level social networks) influences household strategies with respect to migration, education, credit and land use might be the kind of study required for this "push" to a more operationally concrete integrated approach (J. Geran, personal communication).

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