How to analyse institutional arrangements for rural water services and how they evolve: new paper linking political economy analysis and theories of institutional change

I have a new paper in the International Journal of the Commons. The title is Bridging political economy analysis and critical institutionalism: an approach to help analyse institutional change for rural water services. The paper is part of a special issue on “Challenges of critical institutionalism” edited by Frances Cleaver of King’s College London and Jessica de Koning of Wageningen University. Their overview paper sets out the ideas of “critical institutionalism” as a way of helping to understand how institutions for natural resource management evolve. My paper links this literature with work on institutional reform by Matt Andrews (in particular his excellent book on the limits to institutional reform – see here for a good review), David Booth (and the Africa Power and Politics Programme) and the structured approach provided by political economy analysis approaches such as those developed by ODI. My aim is to show how this academic literature can be used in a practical way to help understand how organisations such as NGOs can work with communities and local governments to find ways of improving public services by building on existing local institutions rather than trying to import templates from outside. The approach also fits into recent debates about Doing Development Differently, working with the grain and thinking and working politically.

The abstract is below and the full paper is open access:

This paper argues that approaches to understanding local institutions for natural resource management based on “critical institutionalism” (Cleaver 2012), which emphasises the importance of improvisation and adaptation across different scales, can be placed within broader political economy analysis frameworks for assessing challenges in public services delivery from national to local levels. The paper uses such an extended political economy analysis approach to understand the role of the international NGO WaterAid and its partners in Mali in relation to institutions for financing rural water services, drawing on collaborative research undertaken in 2010 and 2011. The case study shows that WaterAid’s approach can be understood through elements of both mainstream and critical institutionalist thinking. At local government level, WaterAid primarily promotes formal institutional arrangements, which exhibit the challenge of “reforms as signals” (Andrews 2013), where institutional reforms appear to happen but lack the intended function. However, the work of WaterAid’s partners at community level supports processes of “institutional bricolage” through which they try to gradually work with local actors to find ways of ‘best fit’ for financing rural water services which adapt existing local practices into new arrangements.

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