Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Ignore informal institutions at your own risk


Informal institutions across the world have considerable influence over their communities. They can determine how poorer groups and rural citizens interact with governance processes, donor projects and local governments. They also influence what information they access and even to what extent they participate in deliberative forums.

And yet, donors and governance studies remain largely unaware of informal institutions and their impact.

In many parts of the world much of what we understand as governance – service delivery, dispute resolution, representation and electoral politics – is influenced heavily by local informal institutions that operate wholly or partly outside formal structures of the state. In some cases they may even actively substitute for the state by providing services (most obviously the resolution of disputes) that the state is not providing, or providing ineffectively.

Some examples of these informal institutions:

  • In Karnataka state in India disputes between village members are rarely taken to formal courts or the police. Instead, customary village councils or panchayats resolve disputes. Jajams in Rajasthan perform the same function for tribal groups living in the Indian state.
  • In Pakistani Punjab, informal village-based akhats resolve local disputes, decide who the village will vote for in the next election, and akhat heads – usually the largest landlord – regularly mediate with the formal state over public service delivery.
  • Jirgas are important informal institutions in local governance in Afghanistan.
  • Semi-formal mesni zajednicis in Macedonia and bashkesia locale in Kosovo play a very important role in negotiating service provision for communities with local governments.
  • In Sierra Leone o’rbais, or chiefs, dominate the lives of rural citizens and no land transactions of any kind can happen without their approval.
  • In Tanzania, informal clan leaders, the mshili, adjudicate disputes, aggregate votes for parties and mediate between the community and the formal state, especially the police and courts.
  • In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro informal local cabo eleitoral play an important role in deciding who the favela residents will vote for, and what services they will receive in return.

Informal institutions will continue to exist, and donors should work with them

I argue that donors should work with informal institutions because of two recent experiences. I presented my research on the nature and role of informal institutions (some of which is contained in the report An upside-down view of governance) at the headquarters of a donor. Throughout the presentation, I was repeatedly asked one question in various forms: "How do you want us to think about these institutions? Are they good or bad?"

That is not a surprising reaction. The words 'panchayat' or 'jirga' can trigger reservations for some audiences. But the question I was asked during my presentation in fact missed the point.

In reality, it doesn't matter how we think of informal institutions. Regardless of our opinion, they will continue to exist. They will continue to determine whether people can access the projects that donors pour money into, including schools for girls, health centres, vaccination programmes, cash transfer schemes and nutrition interventions.

A second recent experience highlights the importance of these institutions for donors' work. I was part of a team studying a donor's support to decentralisation in the Western Balkans. To our surprise, we found that semi-formal governance institutions existed in almost every neighbourhood and community in the region. The semi-formal institutions in the Western Balkans enjoy respect and trust and have high levels of legitimacy. They elect their leaders, who then represent them in regular engagements with local governments.

Yet, despite the donor’s interest in supporting community participation in local government, they were reluctant to engage directly with these semi-formal institutions.

Why are donors and scholars reluctant to acknowledge informal institutions?

In some places, donors' and scholars' reluctance to acknowledge informal institutions is understandable. In South Asia, these institutions are generally thought of as traditional, regressive, unequal. They may contribute to marginalising women and minorities and they are prone to being 'captured' and controlled by dominant elite groups.

But why are we reluctant to acknowledge these institutions in contexts where they appear to enjoy greater respect and trus?

Our research has found that the more similar these institutions are in form and function to their ‘traditional’ manifestations, the less we like or trust them. Conversely, the more they have interacted with formal political and administrative institutions in a pluralist, competitive environment, the more they are likely to merit acceptance and recognition.

How can we engage with informal institutions towards better governance?

What is needed is for donors and scholars to engage informal institutions in order to make them work better.

During our research, a municipal official in the Western Balkans explained: “If we could work more formally with these institutions we could use them to negotiate with communities [such as on paying taxes], raise awareness on issues [such as health issues and environmental protection], facilitate the implementation of projects [such as waste management], and help the municipality manage inter-community relations”.

The problem is that governance reforms provide little space for engaging with informal institutions.

Whether we like them or not, informal governance institutions are here to stay. Why are we afraid of engaging with them? Maybe it's time to get over our fears and ask a more important question: How do we engage with them to improve governance?

*Shandana Mohmand completed her PhD at IDS and is now working as independent researcher together with several members of the Governance team.

1 comment:

  1. Sylvia Hordosch19 July 2012 at 03:28

    This is interesting, but how do these informal institutions work for women? Do they perpetuate gender inequalities or can they work for women's human rights?

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