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Document Abstract
Published: 1997

Rules, norms and the pursuit of sustainable livelihoods

The role of institutional arrangements in the pursuit of sustainable livelihoods

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Institutional arrangements can either encourage or discourage the pursuit of sustainable livelihoods (SL). The author explores the relationship between resources and capital and examines the nature of property rights and regimes. Critiquing Common Property Resource (CPR) theory he looks at the way in which social exclusion affects the pursuit of sustainable livelihoods. The author concludes that socially shared rules can encourage sustainable livelihoods provided the rate at which individuals extract benefits from the resource base remains relatively low, and distribution of benefits remains wide. However, when such rules reinforce more narrow distribution patterns, livelihoods can be profoundly unsustainable, irrespective of the physical state of the resource base. This paper is of particular interest to environment and governance sectors and to institutional capacity building processes.

Findingsfrom the paper include:
  • institutions can be positive and negative: they facilitate collective action so individuals can transcend the limits of acting in isolation, but in encouraging conformity, they can maintain and reproduce the status quo, often perpetuating adversity
  • livelihoods approaches differ from subsistence approaches in that they enable individuals to increase security by accumulating and investing in various forms of capital. A central element is uncertainty, but social institutions help to reduce uncertainty about the actions of others
  • CPR theory suggests that rules should be negotiated, monitored and enforced at the local level, i.e. the regulatory authority should be those with direct resource interests. However, self-government does not always mitigate problems associated with powerful rent seekers, external threats and institutional conflict. Assistance may be required from external moral allies
  • an understanding of the nature of co-operation and conflict provides a framework for the study of institutions and SL. Sustainable and unsustainable resource management can be differentiated by rates of rent dissipation (i.e. the rate at which individuals extract benefits from the resource base). Rules encourage the pursuit of sustainable livelihoods only in so far as levels of rent dissipation remain low and distribution of benefits remains wide.

Lessons can be drawn for those working to build institutions for sustainable natural resource management. Institutions should facilitate collective action without reproduction of harmful norms.They should also encourage wide distribution of benefits to reduce conflict and high rent dissipation to promote sustainability.

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C. Johnson

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