Incentives and Informal Institutions: Gender and the Management of Water


Cleaver, Frances. 1998. “Incentives and Informal Institutions: Gender and the Management of Water.” Agriculture and Human Values 15 (4): 347–60.

Author: Frances Cleaver


In this paper I consider the contribution that theories about common property resource management and policies relating to participation can make to our understanding of communal water resource management. Common to theoretical and policy approaches are the ideas that incentives are important in defining the problem of collective action and that institutions apparently offer a solution to it. The gendered dynamics of incentives and institutions are explored. This paper briefly outlines theoretical approaches to institutions as solutions to collective action problems and indicates the linkages with policies regarding participation in water resource management. It suggests that, whilst offering considerable insights, such approaches are limited and may result in policy prescriptions that do little to involve or empower women. In particular, I argue that the modeling of incentives is impoverished in its economism and its abstraction of the individual from a life world. I suggest that the conceptualization of institutions is primarily an organizational one, which, whilst alluding to the role of norms, practices, and conventions, focuses primarily on formal manifestations of collective action; contracts, committees, and meetings. Where women’s participation is concerned, I illustrate that incentives to cooperate may be devised from reproductive concerns and the minor exigencies of daily life (as well as from productive concerns) and that alternative models of institutions may better reflect the way in which decisions are made and implemented within a social context.

Keywords: incentives, informal institutions, policy and organizations


Using ethnographic case study of rural Zimbabwean villages, Cleaver argues that current institutional approaches to involving women in water resource management are flawed in that they prioritize formal organizations over informal institutions. Formal water-management organizations, even when they deliberately include women in decision-making processes, are less effective than informal social institutions at reflecting the complex concerns of women in a community and are further often designed in a such as way as to be overly economized and reductionist and to exclude those who stand to gain the most from them (i.e.: poor women). The construction of these new formal institutions ignores pre-existing informal networking-based water management systems that tend to be coordinated by women and to be oriented around deeply ingrained customs of conflict avoidance, approximate compliance, and minimal intervention. Furthermore, common incentive models for water use and management are fundamentally erroneous in their reliance on oversimplified divisions between “domestic” and “productive” water use at the household level and on assumptions about women’s preferences.


“Perceptions and priorities in relation to different [water] sources change seasonally, according to the demands placed on users by agricultural activities and environmental conditions. These complexities, the changeability of preferences over time and the use of multiple sources, would make it difficult to construct a simple hierarchy of preferences… The principle of the prime importance of time saving as an incentive for women can then be qualified by the importance of other considerations arising from domestic concerns...The gendered division of labor is not static but shifting and negotiable as new income generating-opportunities through the sale of crops open up and old ones, through employment, decline.” (351)

“...There is little evidence that participation on committees is either empowering to women or necessarily efficient in terms of water resource management… Appointing women to committees may just be reinforcing their role as “housekeepers” of the water sources rather than enhancing their decision making capacities.” (354)

“A static view of gender interests, household priorities, and local level institutional capacity is of little use when planning interventions. Rather, we need to recognize the shifting and changing priorities of individuals and households over time, that individual men and women have complex social identities, and that both individual and collective action are likely to be shaped by both economically “rational” incentives and socially embedded motivations.” (358)

Topics: Civil Society, Economies, Economic Inequality, Gender, Women, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation Regions: Africa, Southern Africa Countries: Zimbabwe

Year: 1998

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