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Understanding community institutions

Why deepen the community institutional profile?

Just as institutions and organisations at regional and district level cannot be taken at "face value". We must try to understand what goes on beneath their "surface". This is important because the local institutional context can either support or undermine poverty reduction efforts.

What do we mean by community institutions?

By "community" institutions we mean the rules that govern intangible institutions like kinship, marriage, inheritance and sharing of oxen at community level and organizations that operate at community level and are controlled by their members. Development workers tend to pay most attention to relatively formal, visible institutions, such as development agencies or various forms of associations and organisations that they find within communities. This is because they are relatively easy to identify, and usually have fairly clear stated objectives. But institutions often overlap - informal, unstructured social or socio-cultural institutions, such as caste, gender or informal "rules of the game", may exist throughout society and inside formal, structured institutions. Such "nested" institutions may undermine the formal objectives and effectiveness at meeting those objectives.

Community-based organization (CBO) is a generic term applied to all organizations controlled by a community CBOs generally fall into two broad categories: (a) institutions such as the Village Development Committee (VDC) that have "public" functions at community level and are meant to represent the interests of the entire resident population, and (b) Common Interest Groups (CIGs) that have "private" functions, and represent the personal interests of their members. Examples of the latter might be a women's enterprise group or a water users' association or a farmers' association or a village savings cooperative.

Box - Types of community-based organizations (CBOs)

Village development committees (VDCs) are organizations of collective governance of a village with responsibility for development. Collective governance of a community implies a set of accepted endogenous rules, i.e. the institutions of the community, and an organization responsible for the application of the rules and for organizing collective action of interest to all the members of the community.

Common interest groups (CIGs) are organizations of some members of the community that come together to achieve a common purpose.

Users associations (UAs) are CIGs established to operate and maintain a facility constructed with public and/or private funds, with resources mobilized from the members of the association.

Micro-finance institutions (MFIs) are community-level CIGs specialized in savings and lending.

Networks of CBOs. These may join together VDCs or CIGs. The latter are more common. Federations of CIGs of various types are often classified as "Professional Associations".

Community institutional profiles

Who should be interviewed?

Whenever a key informant is to be interviewed for both the community profile and the institutional profile, we recommend combining checklists for Module 4 and Module 5.

Topics to cover in the overview of local institutions

Topics to cover in focus group meetings with key organizations

Module 6 - Checklist 6A - Institutional attributes

The form and structure of institutions, their ownership and the key actors or stakeholders


  • What is the legal status of the institution or organisation?

  • For the project purpose does the institution or organization require legal status?

  • If so, how long will it require to obtain it?


  • What sort of local support does the institution or organisation command and why?

  • Who regards the institution or organisation as legitimate?

  • Is weak legitimacy likely to be a problem for the project?

  • If so, what can be done to enhance legitimacy?


  • What procedures or formally established rules of behaviour does the institution or organisation have?

  • What formal roles and tasks are established within it?

  • How are meetings called? How often?

  • Are they recorded?

  • Who decides procedures?


  • What role do informal rules or processes play in the institution?

  • How do these informal rules affect what the institution or organisation does?

  • Who establishes or influences informal rules or processes?


  • At what level does the institution or organisation operate and is it the 'right' one for the project?

  • If not the right level, who, or what, determines the level at which the institution operates?

Geographic coverage

  • What area does the institution or organisation cover?

  • How is the coverage of the institution determined?

  • Is insufficient coverage likely to be a problem for the project?

  • If so, how could its coverage be broadened?

Objectives and capabilities

  • What are the stated objectives of the institution or organisation?

  • What is the capacity of the institution or organisation to reach those objectives?

  • Are the objectives realistic in the light of its capacity?

  • Who is involved in establishing, changing or influencing the objectives of the institution and its capacity to achieve those objectives?


  • Do leaders and community members sometimes disagree on the management of the institution or organisation?

  • What commitment is there on the part of the institution or organisation and its members to achieve its objectives and to follow its rules?

  • Does the institution or organisation have a 'vision'? If yes, is it stated or expressed anywhere?

  • Who influences the institution's commitment to achieving its objectives?

Mandated objectives and activities

  • What objectives and activities does the institution or organisation have a mandate to achieve or carry out?

  • What, or whom, does the institution or organisation claim to represent?

  • How was this mandate established?

  • Who gave them that mandate?

Ad-hoc objectives and activities

  • What objectives or activities, besides the stated ones, have emerged over time?

  • How have they been addressed?

  • Does the institution or organisation defend the interests of a particular group of people (does it play an advocacy role)? For whom?

  • Who establishes or influences these ad-hoc objectives and activities?

Actual activities

  • How does the institution or organisation achieve, or try to achieve, its objectives?

  • What activities does the organisation undertake now?

  • Who participates in activities and who determines where, how and when activities are carried out?

  • What skills and knowledge are required to undertake these activities effectively?

  • Do members have the capacities, information, awareness, equipment, and resources to operate effectively?

Future activities

  • How does it plan to achieve its objectives in the future?

  • What activities are planned for the future?

  • Who will participate in future activities?

  • Who determines what future activities will be?

  • What skills, knowledge, equipment and resources might be required to undertake these activities?

  • How will these be obtained or developed?

Module 6 - Checklist 6B - Membership and participation

Who is included and excluded from institutions or organisations; the rules that govern membership

Conditions of participation

  • What are the conditions for membership?

  • Does membership in this institution or organisation exclude membership elsewhere?

  • Who participates in the institution or organisation?

  • Who is excluded for the institution or organisation and why?


  • What fees or other forms of contribution are expected from members?

  • Is membership transferable or inheritable?

  • How are these contributions determined?

  • Who determines these contributions?

  • Who collects them?

  • Who decides how they are used?

  • What contributions are received from outside sources?

  • Who manages these?

Rules of the game

  • How, when and by whom were the rules established to determine who benefits (most/least)?

  • How, if at all, do women participate in the institution or organisation?

  • What forms of patronage and protection, if any, does the institution or organisation provide?

  • Who are the institution's or organisation's main beneficiaries?

  • Who decides on how benefits from the institution are distributed?

"Non-Working" rules and sanctions

  • Are some rules applied differently to different people?
  • Are there any rules that are no longer applied?
  • What sanctions are in place for not following the rules?
  • How are they enforced? By whom?
  • Are they applied to everyone in the same way?
  • How often have they been applied in the past?
  • Who decides on and enforces these rules and sanctions?
  • Who has been subject to them now and in the past?

Decision making

  • How, where, when, and by whom are decisions made?

  • How are they transmitted to others?

  • What possibilities are there to debate decisions?

  • What form of consensus is involved in decisions?

  • How and among whom is consensus normally achieved?

  • Are decisions ever revoked?

  • Why and when has this happened?

  • Who influences the decision-making process?


  • What leadership exists in the institution or organisation? Is there an organigramme?

  • How are leaders chosen/elected? For how long?

  • How closely does the level at which the leadership operates correspond to the level at which the whole institution or organisation operates?

  • Who participates in the leadership of the institution, both formally and informally?

  • Who has participated in the leadership in the past?

Module 6 - Checklist 6C - "Invisible" attributes of institutions


  • To what extent does the institution represent values or norms that are common to its members or to the community at large?

  • What are those values?


  • Do any particular social groups identify closely with the institution?

  • Does the institution play a role in forming or preserving the identity of that social group?

  • How does this identification affect the way in which the institution or its members act?

  • How does it affect the sustainability and effectiveness of the institution's actions?

  • How does it affect the relations between this institution and other institutions, both locally and at higher levels?

Incentives and motivations

  • Do the members have any incentives (economic, social, cultural, etc.) or motivations (political, familial, cultural, etc.) for participating in a particular institution?

  • How do these incentives or motivations affect the way in which they participate?

  • How are these incentives or motivations realised?

  • How do these incentives or motivations relate to existing or past social obligations?

  • How have they changed over time and why?


  • What is the potential and capacity for change in a particular institution? What changes have taken place in the past? How did they take place? Who or what promoted them?

  • What role has the institution played in determining change in the neighbourhood/village/community in the past?

  • What role could it play in the future?

  • In the existing situation, how is the institution likely to change in the future?

  • How do different members and participants think it will change?

  • How would they like it to change? How can they influence that change?


  • What room is there for individual initiative in the institution?
  • How is individual initiative accommodated or encouraged by the institution?
  • Is such initiative limited to certain members or participants of the institution?
  • Has this changed in the past and how could it change in the future?


  • How is leadership established within the institution?

  • What role do the personal characteristics (e.g. charisma) and leadership skills (e.g. clear speech) play?

  • How has this changed compared with the past?

  • How do the leadership skills and style affect the success or failure of the institution?

  • How important are the following for establishing leadership in the institution:

    • political power?
    • patronage networks?
    • family and kin relations?

Relations with other institutions

  • Is the institution part of, or linked to, another bigger institution?

  • Are there other smaller institutions that are part of, or linked to, this institution, either formally or informally (for example, are there sub-committees or kin linkages that are typical of the members of the institution)?

  • How do these linkages affect the institution?

Analysing the institutional profiles

The questions below are intended for use by mission members during their brainstorming sessions. They are "memory checks" or questions to keep in the back of one's mind throughout the process. They should be answered through triangulation of information from various sources and by exercise of professional judgement. The questions are not meant to be asked in interviews.

Module 6 - Checklist 6D - Guide for analysis of institutional profiles

  • What institutions affect access and control over resources in the chosen or probable sectors?

  • Which service providers or delivery channels does the project intend to use to reach villagers?

  • Do any of these institutions explicitly or unintentionally exclude, bypass or discriminate against poor households, ethnic minorities or women?

  • Are the institutions dominated by local elites?

  • If so, what is the likelihood that elites could capture a disproportionate share of benefits?

  • If elite capture of benefits is likely, what could the project do to support the poor in such an institutional context?

  • What are the prospects for transforming elite-dominated institutions to make them more egalitarian and democratic?

  • How satisfied are local people with existing service providers?

  • Are there alternative service providers whom the villagers prefer?

  • Which local institutions - relevant to the project - do poor households trust?

  • Which institutions do poor households rank as most important for their own lives?

  • Which local institutions would be the best entry point for reaching the poor?

  • What kind of support (capacity building, equipment, awareness raising) would key local institutions require in order to operate in a manner that would facilitate the achievement of the project goals?

  • Which institution(s) would be most important in developing a long term relationship between the community and the project?

  • Which existing institutions currently oversee, implement, or monitor village decisions about local development and could do so for decisions related to a project?

  • Do these institutions have the skills, power, and legitimacy required to perform these functions effectively?

  • If not, are new institutions needed or could existing institutions perform these functions effectively with additional capacities, knowledge, and/or resources or assets? (Assess the pros and cons of this choice, knowing that existing institutions are usually more sustainable than new ones.)

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