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Moral Ecological Rationality, Institutions and the Management of Communal Resources

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Cleaver, Frances
Conference: Crossing Boundaries, the Seventh Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Conf. Date: June 10-14
Date: 1998
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10535/810
Sector: Theory
Water Resource & Irrigation
Region: Africa
Subject(s): IASC
water resources
collective action
indigenous institutions
rationality
rivers
complexity
Abstract: "This paper considers theories of collective action in relation to the management of communal water resources in Nkayi District, Zimbabwe. Taking a critical view of institutional explanations of common property resource management, it illustrates how the addition of social theory can enrich such approaches. The prevalence of rational choice premises in defining the problem of collective action and the persuasiveness of institutionalism in apparently offering solutions to it is questioned. The paper rejects simple evolutionary theorising about institutions in favour of an embedded approach that allows for complexity, for the social and historical location of collective action and for an examination of the interface between agent and structure. It is argued here that collective management of water supplies does exist in a variety of forms but that it is more partial, changeable and evolving and less attributable to single factors than suggested in much of the literature. "Drawing on ideas of the interaction of agent and structure (Long 1992, Giddens 1984, 1989) of the embeddedness of economic transactions in social life (Granovetter 1992) and of the role of institutions in shaping individual perception and action (Douglas 1987) I explain how, in the case of Nkayi, a form of moral ecological rationality links individual and collective action to environmental well-being and provides a framework within which communal resource management can be explained. This model of decision making and action is deeply enmeshed in culture, history and agro-ecological conditions but nevertheless susceptible to modification and change. Incentives to cooperate are based on the exigencies of daily life, on the primacy of reproductive concerns and on complex and diffuse reciprocity occurring over lifetimes. Although subject to structural constraints individuals adopt varying strategies in relation to resource management and reciprocity, gender, age, kinship relations and wealth being key factors in shaping such strategies. "Use of water resources is shaped by a number of principles derived from the historical convergence of environmental and political conditions, such principles being access for all, multiple use and conflict avoidance, the importance of preserving good condition and minimal management. Decision making about resource use is similarly based on a number of key principles which are sometimes contrary to those suggested in the literature. These are the desirability of lowest level incorporative consensus based decision making, minimal management associated with approximate compliance and conflict avoidance and sanctions based on social and supernatural relationships. The boundaries of resource management systems in Nkayi are permeable, based on fluctuating networks, the authority supporting it derived from strong notions of the right way of doing things and the perceived links between human, natural and supernatural worlds."

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