Flexible Governance and Perceived Fairness: Evidence from Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems in Nepal
22 Pages Posted: 3 Jul 2016
Date Written: June 28, 2016
What is the relationship between flexible governance and fairness? I examine this question in a new longitudinal dataset of irrigation canals in Nepal that were celebrated as paradigmatic cases of successful local governance. The prevalent explanation is that users have avoided knotty collective action problems by committing to rules and mutually monitoring compliance. These rules are understood to have been iteratively crafted over decades so as to render cooperative behavior reasonable. Embedded in a local context that is assumed to be common knowledge for users but ultimately impenetrable to outsiders, it is critical that locals discursively devise the rules and uniformly enforce them. Revisiting these cases three decades later, I first illustrate a distinction between two aspects of flexible governance: flexible rules and flexible enforcement. The former refers to changing rules over time, the latter to variations in enforcement. I document the predicted flexibility of the rules in these cases. I then show that a significant number of successes are associated with flexible enforcement. Whether flexible enforcement helps or hinders sustained collective action appears to depend on how fair users perceive the rules to be. Thus, discretionary enforcement may be related to the possibilities and limits of local governance in achieving fair outcomes, and not just for merely solving collective action problems.
Keywords: governance, irrigation, Nepal, canals
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