Flexible Governance and Perceived Fairness

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
89 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Atul Pokharel, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, Providence, RI
Is the flexible governance of shared resources unfair? I re-examine this question in a new longitudinal dataset of irrigation canals in Nepal that were celebrated by Ostrom* 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. This is surprising because Ostromian collective action cannot be sustained when users decide whether or how to enforce the rules. Based on these findings, I argue that relaxing the strict enforcement assumption is necessary to understand how users grapple with the problem of fairness: finding out what it is and how to achieve it. Thus, discretionary enforcement may be key to the possibilities and limits of local governance in achieving fair outcomes, and not just for merely solving collective action problems.

*Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.