1. Introduction

‘Getting institutions right’ is commonly recognised to be critical basis for governing, planning, and furthering sustainable natural resources management and collective action. This recognition stems from extensive studies on local natural resources management amenable to adequate institutional design. Institutions that have been able to sustain the effective management of natural resources are arguably characterized by certain types of institutional design principles (Gutu et al. 2014). By such principles, we mean the provision of adequate institutional “conditions that are central to the functioning of robust and enduring institutions for common property resource management” (see also Blaikie 2006; Cox et al. 2010; Cleaver 2012, 10). The best known of such characterizations is provided by Elinor Ostrom's (1990) eight principles of ‘institutional strengthening’: well-defined boundaries; match between appropriation and provision rules and local customs; collective-choice arrangements; monitoring; graduated sanctions; conflict-resolution; recognition of rights; and nested enterprises.

The value of adequate institutional design for sustainability applies to natural resources management projects as well. Development interventions are required to produce generic design guidelines for institutional development that are applicable within particular project contexts (Rusca et al. 2015). For instance, rural development project designs have evolved over decades from top-down infrastructure provision to more and more participatory, community-based approaches with an emphasis on local livelihoods development, micro-financing, and social funds (De Haan 2009), producing more and more effective designs for local natural resources management. Development agencies also have a tendency to employ such designs that are associated with contemporary development discourses, such as participation and social inclusion (Rusca et al. 2015). In other words, these intervention designs not only must work locally, but also must be aligned with the policies and strategies of host nations and influential international donors (Hänninen 2014; Rusca and Schwartz 2014; Rusca et al. 2015).

In operation, development intervention designs encounter various local, context-specific, socially embedded institutions (Cleaver 2007, 2012; Jones 2015; Rusca et al. 2015). This encounter produces a prominent gap between institutional designs and reality (Cleaver 2002; Gutu et al. 2014). The local reality is increasingly studied in academic research by the institutional bricolage approach1 (Cleaver 2000, 2002, 2012; Cleaver and de Koning 2015). These bricolage processes become exposed when new institutional designs are introduced to local, customary institutions in development intervention contexts (Gutu et al. 2014). Institutional bricolage describes the way that institutions emerge in practice as a combination of socially embedded practices and formal structures (Cleaver 2012; Jones 2015). It stresses social contexts and dynamics, such as power relations and individual agencies, in the formulation and enforcement of institutional rules (Gutu et al. 2014). It is through bricolage processes that established institutions become socially embedded and historically moulded (Cleaver 2012). As such, bricolage is considered as an inevitable, natural process of the institutional reality.

Bricolage is a critical institutionalist viewpoint that emerged partly as a critique of the alleged lack of deeper understanding about social, dynamic institutional realities within previous institutional approaches (Cleaver 1999, 2005, 2012; Blaikie 2006; Cox et al. 2010; Hall et al. 2014; Cleaver and de Koning 2015). The drawback of critical approaches is that they propose fewer valuable guidelines for natural resources management than the institutional design principles (Cleaver 2012; Cleaver and de Koning 2015). The approaches reflect different views on the role and nature of institutions in general (Gutu et al. 2014). Institutional designs have been developed for advancing the management of natural resources through generalizable means, whereas the inspiration of the bricolage approach stems from the understanding of the complex, fuzzy, socially construed institutional reality. Notably, both approaches are potentially valuable for furthering institutional sustainability.

Many scholars have stressed the value of facilitating bricolage in addition to institutional design guidelines for furthering sustainability (Cleaver 2002;Komakech and Van der Zaag 2011; Merrey and Cook 2012; Ingram et al. 2015). However, none of the studies actually demonstrate specific ways in which this type of facilitation could be done locally in practice. We therefore analyse and specify possibilities to better incorporate bricolage potentials within institutional designs. This is done through a case study on water users’ institutions established by a water project in rural Nepal. The prominence of the study stems from the search to advance the potentials of both institutional design and bricolage processes for the purpose of furthering institutional sustainability.

The first aim of the study is to explore the ways in which a water project design and institutional bricolage phenomena are manifested together within the operations of local water users’ institutions, established by the water project. The study secondly ponders the ways in which the inevitable institutional bricolage processes could be better accounted through more ‘organic’ designs for advancing sustainable natural resources management. The focus of the study is on institutional functionality and sustainability.

2. Methods

2.1. Case study background

Nepal is a society with 83% of the population living in rural areas (Central Bureau of Statistics 2012). The Government of Nepal has set a target of achieving universal coverage of basic water supply and sanitation services for its citizens by 2017. The estimated country-wide water supply coverage in Nepal is 83.6% (Ministry of Urban Development 2014). Many of the remaining unserved pockets are located in the most remote, water-scarce, and poor regions of the rural areas. These regions suffer from various development challenges, including under-nourishment and extreme poverty. The problems can be alleviated by furthering sustainable water resources management and water infrastructure development. Such activities contribute to the basic prerequisites of a good life, such as land cultivation and home gardening possibilities, the reduction of water-fetching time and illnesses brought on by open defecation, and possibilities for enhancing personal health and hygiene. However, the lack of long-term sustainability remains a prominent challenge for water sector stakeholders (see Bhandari and Grant 2007; Ministry of Urban Development 2014). Institutional functionality and sustainability in the water sector remains challenging, as only about one fourth of the water supply schemes are fully functional (Ministry of Urban Development 2014).

Our target development intervention, the Rural Village Water Resources Management Project (RVWRMP), is a bilateral development cooperation project supported by the government of Nepal (GoN) and the government of Finland. RVWRMP attempts to tackle the challenges described earlier in the most remote, water scarce, food insecure, poor villages in the Far and Mid West Development Regions of Nepal (Figure 1). Operating since 2006, the project defines its scope as broadly defined water resources development. This includes local water supply, sanitation, hygiene, micro-hydropower and community-managed irrigation systems development, combined with livelihoods development, institutional capacity building and micro-finance (RVWRMP 2011; Rautanen et al. 2014). These developments are generally realised through establishing and training community-managed Water Users’ and Sanitation Committees (WUSCs) for water scheme planning, implementation and management. Our case study focuses on WUSCs in rural Nepal.

Figure 1 

Map of Nepal and the project districts. (Provided with the permission of RVWRMP).

2.2. Analytical framework and scope of study

The theoretical lens is focused on the exogenous institutional water project design and chiefly local, endogenous bricolage processes. The institutional design is represented by government policies, project strategies, and operational guidelines. Bricolage is represented by the local arrangements that reform the original institutional design, draw on the project modalities to create new or adapted arrangements, meet encountered challenges, and improvise operations (Figure 2).

Figure 2 

Analytical framework.

The focus of the study is on institutional functionality and sustainability aspects. We understand functionality to mean the capacity of the WUSCs to successfully provide reliable services by performing day-to-day operations and maintenance, to solve unexpected challenges, as well as to adapt to changes in the operational environment and invest in long-term sustainability. We examine the functionality aspects of the WUSCs as they are most essential for the long-term sustainability of water resources management. We hence understand sustainability as the long-term systemic consistency and resilience, and the potential for persistent institutional development and adaptation. We nevertheless highlight that evaluating the current functionality or sustainability status of the WUSCs as such is not the purpose of our analysis.

We acknowledge that bricolage is not necessarily only endogenous; there are bricolage phenomena also within the project design. However, the research regards only the processes of the local water resources institutions; the bricolage occurrences of the project are out of the scope of this study. The project design is reflected only insofar as it influences the institutional settings and development at the local level.

We also highlight that we reflect our findings only in relation to institutional functionality and sustainability. We do not editorialise the importance of the sustainability aspect in relation to other socially fundamental questions, such as that of cultural preservation or the legitimacy of development interventions in general. One possible interpretation to that discussion in our case study context has been provided by Haapala and White (2015).

2.3. Selection of localities

The case study regards three RVWRMP districts of Far West Nepal, namely Dadeldhura, Bajura, and Achham. The studied WUSCs are selected from potential sites that are likely to represent the majority in the mid-hills – rather than in the plains (Terai) or high mountains (the conditions of both of which differ greatly from the hills).

The three case study districts were selected for two reasons that enabled us to study both the institutional project design and local bricolage processes. First, the target WUSCs are located in most remote, rural Nepal. That provides a case where the governmental influence is weak and geographical, social, natural and operational settings remain challenging for development projects. We therefore consider that the lack of external sustenance in the case study locality leaves relatively abundant room for local bricolage occurrences to be studied. This view is also supported by the studies by Ingram et al. (2015) and Funder and Marani (2015).

Second, the target WUSCs are relatively recently established, and they are undergoing a transition period from externally supported to feasible, self-standing institutions. The transition period is a vulnerable phase for community institutions in Nepal, demonstrated in a study by Adhikari and Goldey (2010, 192) on 129 Nepalese Community Based Organizations (CBOs). The transition phase hence enables us to study the ways in which the institutional design established by the project dissolves into local social and institutional settings.

2.4. Case study design and data collection

Descriptive case study design (Yin 2013) is applied to the investigation of the WUSCs. The operation of WUSCs in Far West Nepal is deemed a single-case (Yin 2013). Our qualitative data collection regards seventeen in-depth WUSC interactions and related observation walks at the schemes. The studied WUSCs form seventeen embedded units of analysis (Yin 2013), which enable replication and comparison of the findings between the WUSCs. All but one of our target WUSCs are established during Phase I of the project (2006–2010); and one during Phase II (2011–2016).

Triangulation is used to reduce the potential biases and cross-check our results and interpretations: We compare the audio-recorded WUSC interactions against a dozen project personnel interviews, a workshop with project personnel on the bricolage processes in the project operations, three audio-recorded project specialist interviews on related special issues (namely cooperatives, the post-construction strategy of the established WUSCs, and community livelihoods development), one cooperative interview (in Dadeldhura District), unpublished project documents, and our field observations and earlier experiences in the field. Therefore, the results are an outcome from a dialogue between different stakeholders and sources of information. According to the project experts and our experiences, the results of the study reflect the typical situation of the project operations in Far West Nepal, pertaining to hundreds of schemes and water users’ institutions. We therefore consider that our findings reflect the typical situation in the case study regions.

We acknowledge that potential challenges to the reliability and validity of this particular study can lie in the potential bias of the interpreters, as well as in the possible lack of trust between the researchers and the villagers. The use of project staff as interpreters and the presence of an external, foreign researcher clearly has a potential to influence the outcomes of the data collection. The answers, usually given by the most dominant members of the WUSC most probably reflected well the actual hierarchy and decision-making authority within the WUSCs, but we might have missed diversity of opinion for the same reason. Nevertheless, we believe that the translation was accurate and consider that the interviewed key-informants spoke openly.

3. Results

The results are presented in two sections. The first section reviews the water project design principles and the space left for local bricolage processes within them. The second section focuses on findings from the field, emphasising the institutional realities of the WUSC operation from the interlaced institutional design and bricolage perspectives. Our interpretations of the given examples are reflected further in the discussion section. The results provide a factual, demonstrative basis for the discussion, which elaborates the ways in which bricolage processes could be facilitated for improving sustainability by more ‘organic’ institutional designs. A more detailed description of the characteristics of the WUSCs is available in the appendix.

3.1. Review of project design on WUSCs and space for bricolage processes

The stated project design principles of RVWRMP strive for good governance. This includes working from within local governance structures; avoiding parallel, project-specific structures; transparency; community management and participation; and human rights, gender equality and social inclusion (HRBA & GESI) (see RVWRMP II and RWSSP-WN 2015). The stated purpose of RVWRMP emphasises the achievement of improved well-being and reduced poverty in the project villages (RVWRMP 2011, 28). The project is embedded into the lowest tiers of the local government, operating under the Ministry for Federal Affairs and Local Government. The institutional arrangements at the community level are aligned with the Nepalese institutional structures described in the Local Self Governance Act 2055 (GoN 1999). WUSCs are defined as users’ groups in the Local Self Governance Act 2068 and they are registered under the Water Resources Act, establishing their right to their water source and making the WUSC a legal entity. WUSCs have a formal status within the governmental administration, and a budget of their own. They are formed by the local water users (comprised of local beneficiary households), who are also expected to contribute to both their scheme construction and its maintenance later on. WUSCs thus represent community-managed institutional arrangements. Practically all the schemes are gravity-fed piped water supply systems in the case study area.

The project operates through establishing and training WUSCs for community-managed water schemes. The task of WUSCs is first to plan and implement, and then to lead the operation and maintenance of individual water supply schemes at the local level. The posts were distributed as equally as possible to both sexes and ideally represent all social groups. WUSCs should prepare a constitution, establish a bank account, prepare an action plan, and follow good management practices, specified in the Step-by-Step and Post-Construction Guidelines of the project (RVWRMP 2012a).

For the first time in the Far West, water users formed WUSCs that lead the planning, implementation, and operation and maintenance at an individual water scheme level, and had a budget of their own (rather than being planned and constructed by the district prior to handover). The premise was that the principles of good governance, including financial transparency and accountability can best be realised by bringing the scheme budgets and related decisions down to the lowest appropriate levels. The main institutional design arrangements of the project WUSCs are categorized in accordance with Ostrom's (1990) eight institutional design principles in Table 1.

Table 1:

Implementation of institutional design principles within project operations.

Design principle Implementation in practices of WUSCs Difficulties sometimes encountered
1. Well-defined boundaries Institutional: WUSC responsible for managing the infrastructure
Users/beneficiaries: Water fee payers
Physical: Scheme infrastructure and immediate watershed above the water source Users groups operational and legal boundaries defined in the local self-governance act
Sometimes, due to water scarcity, water is taken from a neighbouring Village Development Committee (VDC) – this carries some risk for continuing supply
2. Match between appropriation and provision rules and local customs WUSC Statute: defined rules, regulations, shared costs WUSC registration under Water Act: establishing rights to water and responsibilities (water source).
Women's meeting held to decide tap locations.
Potential conflict as traditionally community members consider water to be free. Risk of elites taking water for production and depriving some households
3. Collective-choice arrangements Election of WUSC members from the water users; familiarity and continuous interactions between water users and WUSC members; transparency principle in operation and maintenance and management Risks of elite capture, exclusion of disadvantaged groups/women
4. Monitoring Participatory systematic monitoring embedded into the Step-By-Step approach. Public hearings and mass meetings are an aspect of the monitoring practice stipulated in the project guidelines. Transparency and accountability principles of the project.
Operational scheme monitoring: VMW
Responsibility: WUSC
Requires initial facilitation by project and regular collection of adequate water tariff to pay VMW. Water tariff set often too low to pay for continuing maintenance
5. Graduated sanctions WUSC Statute: rules and regulations
Follow-up with sanctions by WUSC
Sometimes not written down. Sanctions may not be well understood or may be applied unfairly.
6. Conflict-resolution WUSC Statute, Water Safety Plan
Public audits and public hearings, transparency, accountability as established during the planning and implementation phase through Step-by-Step approach
Requires initial support from project. Risk of corruption leading to conflict.
7. Recognition of rights Legal status (Local Self Governance Act 2055; 2068; Water Act) Registration must be renewed
8. Nested enterprises Supportive roles of VDCs, V-WASH-CCs, DDCs, District WASH Coordination Committees and line agencies. Sometimes limited support available (e.g. VDC Secretaries overloaded)

Note: Village Development Committees (VDCs) constitute the lowest tier of the governance hierarchy. District Development Committees (DDCs) are the second lowest tier of the governance, comprised of multiple VDCs. The project works with VDC-wide Village Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Coordination Committees (V-WASH-CC). The VDC WASH Coordination Committees (V-WASH-CCs) in the RVWRMP area cover all water resources management issues, livelihoods and micro-finance. The establishment and role of V-WASH-CCs is defined in the Nepal National Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan (GoN 2010). The role of District WASH Coordination Committees D-WASH-CCs corresponds at District level with the role of V-WASH-CCs. VMW; village maintenance worker is a trained person, responsible for day-to-day maintenance of a water scheme.

Remarkably, we found no explicit procedures in the formal project design that would have clearly supported or enhanced institutional bricolage occurrences. On the other hand, we found no explicit barriers in the project design that would have prevented local bricolage activities as such. The focus of the project on community management, participation, and social inclusion may potentially support bricolage activities and processes, though the project did not provide any explicit advice or guideline for such support. The WUSC post-construction guidelines (RVWRMP 2012a) was the most notable document that had the potential for supporting self-initiative operation modes as it was used for the preparation of the WUSCs for independent operation and maintenance by project phase out.

3.2. Project design meets local bricolage

The first, fairly general example on the institutional realities of the WUSC emphasises the unequal distribution of power and responsibilities within the WUSC by gender and social status, despite efforts by the project (see #3 in Table 1). All the interviewed chairpersons and the Village Maintenance Workers (VMWs; a trained person responsible for day-to-day maintenance of a water scheme) were men, reflecting the typical situation in the Far West. Men usually held many of the other most important positions in the WUSCs, though treasurers are usually women (as of 2015, project data showed that only 34% of WUSC leadership positions are held by women). From earlier experiences and the project staff, we recognise that this unequal distribution of power within the WUSC is common in the study area, due to both the local social traditions limiting women's roles, and to the limited literacy of women – a very practical barrier to holding office. One of the interviewed WUSCs [scheme number XVI, see Appendix] operated mainly under the supervision of one of the leading men of the VDC. The female WUSC treasurer did not even know about deposits in their bank account since the influential male leader was responsible for all such things.

The second example concerns maintenance (#4 in Table 1; #10 in Table B in Appendix). The project design requires that all WUSCs need to train, appoint and employ at least one VMW. As a result, VMW salaries have become the most prominent – and quite often the only (see Table A in the Appendix) – running expenditure for the WUSCs. Hence, they might try to reduce the costs by various bricolage developments, such as the following: One interviewed WUSC [XI] requested the trained VMW to attend only when needed with an on-the-spot payment instead of regular maintenance work and salary. Day-to-day scheme inspections would be done by the users themselves. This adaptation possibly posed a risk to the operation and maintenance, but it also reduced the running expenditures significantly, offering a feasible solution to the community. From our experiences and from the experiences of the project personnel, we understand that many other WUSCs have decided on similar arrangements in rural Nepal.

The third example regards WUSC statutes – a written memo on regulations for the WUSC management, required from the WUSCs by the project (see #2 and #5 in Table 1; and #2 in Table B in Appendix). Eight interviewed WUSCs [I, III, V, IX, XII, XV, XVI, XVII] had not prepared complete WUSC Statutes as required. However, the interviews revealed that the local scheme users clearly had a good mutual understanding about the rules and regulations under the WUSC Statute. This understanding legitimated the rules and regulations in the community without an itemised Statute. The understanding was based on their local conventions and hence they simply did not see a reason to write down the Statute. In one instance, the interviewed WUSC [XVI] members had prepared the required Statute on paper, but they argued that “these rules and regulations are prepared and passed by the WUSC and users but it is not again opened and seen and followed.”2 Hence, this bricolage application was clearly legitimate in the community, maintained the local customs and case-to-case flexibility, but it also left more space for potential quarrels and conflicts.

The fourth example regards external support. Many WUSCs expected either donor-based or governmental support for large scheme repairs and projected renovations3 (#4 and #8 in Table B in Appendix). These expectations confronted the intended WUSC design promoted by the project. The project design emphasised community ownership and independent operation and maintenance. Six of the WUSCs [IV, V, VI, XII, XIV, XVII] expected mostly external support, with only minor contributions from the water users. A project specialist described the situation in some less remote areas: “They [WUSC members] think like ‘if this project will go, the next project will come’. […] I feel that sometimes even to eat you might need some donor, you know. That kind of scenario is being developed in the community. So, aid dependency is that aid is restricting individuals from knowing their capacity.”4 Due to the strong presence of external donors in some of the more accessible areas of rural Far West Nepal, this certainly rational donor-preference actually prevented the WUSCs from truly taking the projected responsibility of the scheme. This was obviously against the community-ownership based design of the project, but still an accepted custom among the communities.

The last example considers financial management and institutionalisation. WUSCs encounter many financial management problems and competency issues that can be managed by official cooperatives.5 However, not all the remote study areas have well-functioning cooperatives operating. While the project has supported cooperative development in some VDCs, only two cooperatives were established in the VDCs where the interviewed WUSCs were located. Instead, the WUSCs had established analogous community organisations that would act in practice as cooperative-like microcredit groups, without legal registration and statutes. Establishment of these groups requires considerable self-initiative from the WUSCs.

Five of the interviewed WUSCs [VIII, XI, XII, XV, XVI] intended to further develop community-level cooperatives or Community Organisations.6 Furthermore, three WUSCs [XII, XIV, XVII] had addressed their poor accessibility to markets and banks by investing their water fee payments themselves as micro-loans in the home village. “It [the borrowed money] is circulating in their village and they get interest and they also circulate that much money in their village […]. They use their money for goat farming, chicken farming, and other livelihood purposes and return it back to the users’ committee.”7 It is notable that some WUSCs received up to 24% annual interest from the micro-credit business whereas some others did not charge any interest8 (see Table A in Appendix).

Wherever the WUSCs were not capable of creating alternative institutional solutions to the encountered economic and capability problems, the general financial management and the collection of water fees tended to remain unsatisfactory. For example a majority of the interviewed WUSCs [I, II, III, V, VI, VII, X, XIII, XVII] were content to stay without interest for at least part of their deposited savings, without considering the formation of cooperative-like institutions or offering micro-credit by themselves.9 Even in some communities with successful cooperatives operating nearby, project staff had noted that some WUSCs still are reluctant to bank with the cooperative. Historical distrust of cooperatives leads the community to prefer to keep their accounts in the bank, even though they do not receive interest.

4. Discussion

4.1. Reflections on results

In this section, we interpret the examples given in the results (Section 3.2). First, we discuss examples 1–3 that demonstrated the ways in which project designs encountered the local conventions and bricolage occurrences often in rather contradictory manner. The evident moulding of the project design to local settings could be construed as an indication of institutional adaptation or as a return to earlier local behaviours. Morris et al. (2013) found comparable results regarding the community operation of water users’ associations in rural Tanzania, where the water resources management moved away from designed arrangements towards local learning forums, initiated by civil society organisations.

In our study context, we experience such contradictory encounters between the institutional design and the local settings as a case of elite capture – the powerful, higher caste men of the village continue to control business in many cases, despite the water project attempts to design more equitable systems. The same issue was recently addressed by Adhikari and Goldey (2009); Rusca et al. (2015); and Rusca and Schwartz (2014), who raised concerns on how institutional designs that aim for participatory approaches are too easily taken over by local elites, transforming them into disempowering forms of participation that reproduce local inequalities. In our study, such modes of management had a clear degrading impact to the overall access to water; and in that sense to the overall accruing benefits. In this sense, inequality, functionality, and sustainability are interlinked.

Such elite capture certainly reduces the equity and equality of the WUSC management but the opinions on the impacts on sustainability vary in the review literature. According to several studies, elite capture reduces institutional functionality (Prokopy 2005; FCG International Ltd. 2013; Walters and Javernick-Will 2015). Then again, it is obvious that some actors naturally possess more authoritative resources than the others; bricolage is hence an authoritative process by nature (Franks et al. 2013; Gutu et al. 2014; Rusca and Schwartz 2014; Rusca et al. 2015). This unequally distributed authority may also prove necessary for the efficiency and functioning of institutions (Rusca and Schwartz 2014). Our results reminded that one cannot declare the institutional adaptation in favour of local customs either as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ in terms of functionality and equity without a careful insight into the reality of the scheme management in each separate situation.

The presence of external support, discussed in the fourth example, may reduce the need to deploy local capabilities. This obviously poses a risk to long-term scheme functionality. Ideally, projects would therefore need to be able to promote either external support or facilitate endogenous bricolage behaviours depending on the estimated effects on the WUSC operation, vis-à-vis project objectives. This requirement obviously poses a challenge to projects in practice, as the project personnel would need expressly good knowledge of the WUSC capacities and local social dynamics. This, again, raises the question whether certain desirable types of bricolage can be facilitated (e.g. Merrey and Cook 2012), discussed further the next section.

Another related question regards the sustainability of the WUSCs in the future, once the project support is no longer present. White et al. (2015) studied the 496 rural community managed drinking water and sanitation schemes (30–250 beneficiary households per scheme) supported by RVWRMP (2006–2014). The observed results (91.5% fully functional, 8.3% partially functional and 0.2% schemes closed due to natural disasters and social conflicts) compared very favourably to the systems implemented by the government of similar age, which had much less hands-on technical support and resources for follow-up. This result supports the awareness that well-designed institutions produce a good baseline for the development of local water resources management. However, the development could ideally be further reinforced by facilitated bricolage processes that would obviate the donor-preference and increase the endurance of WUSCs through adaptation over time.

The last example of the results surveyed ways in which the WUSCs meet their various financial management problems in the challenging operational environment. The bricolage capabilities seemed to be essential especially in the most challenging, remote, and poor operational environments where governmental and other institutional support remained weak. Bricolage seems to potentially generate institutional endurance through increased adaptation capacity over time (Cleaver and de Koning 2015). Similarly, Funder and Marani (2015) and Ingram et al. (2015) saw bricolage activities as a strategic response to weak or complex administration and governance in their case studies. Sehring (2009) observed that formal state or donor organisations become undermined by informal institutions in Central Asia. Verzijl and Dominiquez (2015) found in the Peruvian Andes that an adaptive, polymorphic institution was regarded as the most enduring type of water-user association. In our case, the self-initiated actions provided solutions to the financial and other problems, as well. Careful consideration is therefore required on finding functional and equitable ways in which to support the inevitable bricolage processes especially in challenging operational environments.

In general, externally driven project designs are overlaid with the need to apply certain generic institutional designs to local levels (Rusca and Schwartz 2014; Haapala and White 2015; Rusca et al. 2015). This generates a growing concern with identifying simultaneously locally acceptable, and sustainable institutional arrangements (Booth 2012; Cleaver and de Koning 2015; Jones 2015). In Far West Nepal, this concern has been studied by Haapala and White (2015), for instance. Externally planned models, however, often collide with the traditions, values, and social hierarchies of the community. In our case study, such generic models involved gender equality and social inclusion strategies, human rights-based approach, principles of good governance, and environmental protection efforts. The reality is that project funding cannot be supplied by the donor and partner government unless these principles are respected in the project design. We believe that a design that would more explicitly acknowledge bricolage processes would help to alleviate that contradiction. This type of design is further discussed in the next section.

4.2. Towards more organic institutional designs

The research revealed that the generic water project design and local institutional bricolage arrangements were profoundly interlaced in the field. Both sound institutional design and bricolage capabilities are required to successfully maintain the functionality of the water user institutions and water schemes in the challenging operational environments. Yet, the formal project design identified no explicit bricolage processes. It therefore seems that there is a risk that the customary institutional design overlooks the potentials of the local bricolage processes.

We demonstrated the ways in which bricolage arrangements pose problems and offer solutions to institutional functionality and sustainability. First, we observed that the challenge with bricolage arrangements was that such occurrences frequently remained either ‘bad ideas’ or ‘bad executions’ for institutional functionality or equity. The examples regarding different forms of elite capture demonstrated this drawback in the results, as discussed in the previous section. On the other hand, in many challenging situations bricolage arrangements offered the only potential way to further sustainable institutional operations. Such arrangements were demonstrated in the last example regarding self-initiated financial management efforts of the WUSCs.

We ponder in this section the ways in which these challenges can be overcome and the unused potentials better employed for the benefit of institutional sustainability. We demonstrate that there are several means for facilitating bricolage potentials within the institutional design. This does not mean forgetting the value of the well-established institutional design guidelines. It rather means creating an explicitly specified space for facilitated bricolage occurrences.

4.2.1. Organic design

It is evident from above that bricolage ‘just occurs’. We, however, acknowledge that such processes do not occur in isolation but in a certain operative environment. Therefore, it is possible to modify that space by careful facilitation or ‘triggering’ so that the bricolage occurrences are more likely to lead to more and more sustainable operation modes. This idea characterises our concept of ‘organic’ institutional design that merges the best of institutional design principles and the possibility for facilitating bricolage, as specified below.

The possibility for facilitating bricolage has been broadly acknowledged in academic research. For instance, Merrey and Cook (2012) stress the need for better understanding of the social and institutional realities: “Fostering bricolage processes involves negotiating and facilitating local change agents’ creative processes, not imposing new ‘best practice’ techniques. […] with a deeper understanding of the institutional landscape and social processes, researchers and politicians can support people to improve their livelihoods and well-being.” (Merrey and Cook 2012, 15–16). Similarly, Shah (2007) stresses the importance of the facilitation of bricolage processes at local levels to strengthen adaptive capacity, rather than attempting to impose new institutional arrangements and water management practices. Cleaver (2002) likewise stresses the importance of facilitating or allowing bricolage by arguing that development interventions “should be based on socially informed analysis of the content and effects of institutional arrangements, rather than their form alone” (Cleaver 2002, 11). There are also other related institutional concepts, such as institutional crafting (Bromley 2012; Thiel et al. 2015), that likewise emphasise the process nature of institutional reality.

This brings us to the question of how then this bricolage content could be articulated and its potential realised in the best way. We contribute to that discussion by explaining more in detail the ways in which bricolage could be more explicitly linked with project and other institutional designs in practice by their more ‘organic’ application. To illustrate the idea, we allegorically apply Stokes’ (1997) “quadrant model of scientific research” diagram.10 Our compliant matrix (Figure 3) combines the purpose of institutional design (for ensuring sustainable natural resources management) with the inspiration of the bricolage approach (which is to understand the socially construed institutional reality).

Figure 3 

Linking institutional design and bricolage.

The depictions above suggest that these approaches reflect rather different views on the role and ontological nature of institutions (see also Gutu et al. 2014). Institutional design emphasises improved management through solution-oriented, positive, rational formalisations of ‘good’ governance and management, and institutional crafting. The bricolage viewpoint highlights enhanced institutional understanding and parity with the reality through accounting social embeddedness, piecing together practices, and critical decomposition of formulations (see Cleaver 2012, 10–16).

We stress that both of them are potentially valuable to sustainability – each through its own way, stemming from their foundational characteristics. The solution-oriented, rational principles and institutional crafting can be successfully merged with the critical parity with reality that accounts for the social settings and pieced-together practices. The solution-orientation in combination with the understanding about the underlying bricolage reveals a space for further development of management principles and practices that support bricolage processes. Both types of contributions are therefore necessary for furthering institutional sustainability. Despite their ontological differences, we address them together to combine their potential contributions to sustainability. The integrating approach is here referred as organic institutional design.

Organic design enables the generation of facilitated spaces for the bricolage occurrences. The facilitated spaces are to provide locally legitimate and broadly inspiring room to local agencies. These spaces are gradually adjusted by continuous institutional learning towards sustainability. The very objective of organic design is therefore to address the evident risks and drawbacks of bricolage occurrences by creating directive facilitated spaces for such occurrences. One option is the gradual shift towards allowing such bricolage arrangements where those concerned have adopted the best practices and skills learned while starting with institutional design.

4.2.2. Explicit articulation of existing operations in terms of facilitating bricolage

Characterizing the concept of organic design, we firstly recognise that bricolage cannot be overtly planned or designed as it ‘just occurs’ within the existing, suitable space considering the local resources and the actual operational environment. We still consider, following for instance Merrey and Cook (2012), that it can be facilitated by creating such spaces for the bricolage occurrences in which they head towards increasing institutional sustainability. We see that the right type of space for bricolage processes can be furthered in several ways within the design by converting it to more ‘organic’ enterprise.

Facilitating bricolage does not necessarily require new institutional arrangements but rather redirecting the operations of the development intervention to explicitly facilitate bricolage. There is no doubt that the project design guidelines unwittingly contain characteristics that encourage sustainable bricolage occurrences. Such characteristics, also evident in the design of RVWRMP, comprise investments to the 'software’ side of the intervention: institutional capacity building, provision of various trainings, promotion of certain behaviour changes, and strategies for gender equality and social inclusion. The Step-By-Step approach of RVWRMP, for instance, has the potential to be developed into this direction, allowing bricolage to develop as WUSCs move ahead, step-by-step (see the project's Step By Step and Post Construction Manuals; RVWRMP 2012a, b). The post-construction phase guideline could be fully revised from this point of view, assuming that by the time the scheme has been completed, the WUSC has developed the capacity, skills and experience, together with confidence, to make new decisions with regards to O&M in the spirit of bricolage.

The challenge that we find here is that these designs are often not articulated explicitly in terms of the purpose of facilitating bricolage. The potency of such facilitation is thus left under recognized and undervalued in the project designs from explicit point of view. We see that explicit application of organic design would expose these potentials to project operations, monitoring and documentation. This would enable further facilitation of the potentials of bricolage arrangements following the received feedback.

4.2.3. Providing locally legitimate and broadly inspiring spaces to local agencies

Besides the existing processes, also the endogenous behaviours and agencies would be potentially redirected for furthering sustainability. The means for such redirections are inevitably context specific and they often occur through local changes in social behaviour. In our case study context, Haapala and White (2015) conducted a study on the features that enabled or disabled domestic water use behaviour changes promoted by RVWRMP. They found that individual incentives, as well as the operating space allowed by the community, drove the behaviour changes. Local traditions often restricted the promoted behaviour changes. It was also more likely that behaviour changes would be accepted if they were relevant to both men and women, as they attained broader social coverage (Haapala and White 2015).

We consider that this study would offer a means for facilitating bricolage institutional changes in our project context and beyond, as well. Following Haapala and White (2015), the created space for institutional bricolage could be facilitated so that it inspires the local agencies broadly enough to further and maintain the sustainability. In order to ensure this, the provided bricolage space must also become locally legitimate over time.

This does not mean that the implemented changes would necessarily have a good social fit at the start. Rather, the promoted changes would need to contain the seeds for broader approval over time. Such seeds would include clear mutual benefits, improved social equity, transparency, democratic institutions, and local capabilities, depending on the case. As discussed above, many of such practices are already in place within institutional designs, though not necessarily explicitly expressed in relation to facilitating bricolage arrangements. Gerwel-Jensen et al. (2015) note the necessary steps by a community of preference (motivation), intention, choice of methods, use and maintenance, to be able to ‘trigger’ a sustainable change of behaviour. This reflects the importance of bricolage alongside institutional design.

Creating spaces for local agencies has linkages to capacity development as well. As noted by Rautanen (2016), ensuring sustainable water and sanitation services requires integrated, multi-level ‘capacity for development’. This is enabled by creating spaces for continued learning, adaptation, and innovation for institutional sustainability in volatile and unpredictable operational environments, such as that of rural Nepal (Rautanen 2016). Presence of facilitators in the field, that encourage and trigger changes to enhance sustainability, seems crucial for the creation of such facilitated spaces at various levels (Rautanen 2016). Development interventions that apply organic design in their operations would prove most suitable to such a role.

One way to translate this into practice is by starting with the institutional design that builds both capacity and confidence of WUSCs. They then ‘graduate’ into bricolage space, ideally carrying on with those legitimate practices that the WUSC itself has found useful and that the beneficiaries at large accept. For instance, WUSCs first develop capacity and real life experience in transparent financial management by collecting water tariffs and then exposing the use of the funds to the wider community through public audits. These events have the potential to trigger a positive response from the beneficiary population, encouraging the WUSC to carry on this practice also without the project's specific encouragement. WUSCs adapt the event to fit into their own operational environment, and hence enter from strict formal institutional design (of how to do a public audit) into bricolage by applying locally available resources and issues, making the event meaningful and legitimate to their context. The ‘triggering’ effect can be both ways, making WUSC members feel motivated at an individual level to stay as members, and encouraging the beneficiaries to support the WUSC, in terms of willingness to contribute to the WUSC for operation and maintenance.

This is also means that there is a research need to look at ways in which to articulate the bricolage processes beyond operative levels, at the policy and other formal levels, given that the policy environment should allow certain space for local adaptation. Rautanen (2016) also highlights the importance of capacity development at multiple levels (from individual to institutional and more generic levels of enabling environment) and triggering changes over time. Local capacity development is particularly important in relatively poor countries, where the local informal level provides the basis for daily economic activities but the formal level remains relatively weak and ineffective, being unable to implement policies at local levels (Merrey and Cook 2012). An organic design that promotes facilitated spaces for bricolage to be accounted in design and policies at multiple levels would play a role in triggering institutional changes for advancing sustainability over time.

5. Conclusion

Our case study demonstrated the institutional realities of a water project and water user associations in remote, rural Nepal. The research revealed that the generic water project design and local bricolage processes (regarding local distribution of power and responsibilities, expected external support, the seminal application of various project modalities, and financial management issues, were profoundly interlaced in the field. Yet, the formal project design identified no explicit bricolage processes nor modalities to address them. It therefore seemed that the customary institutional design overlooked the potentials of the local bricolage occurrences.

We demonstrated the ways in which bricolage arrangements pose problems and offer solutions to institutional functionality and sustainability. First, we observed that the challenge with the bricolage arrangements was that such occurrences frequently remained either ‘bad ideas’ or ‘bad executions’ for institutional functionality or equity. The examples regarding different forms of elite capture demonstrated this drawback. On the other hand, in many challenging situations bricolage arrangements offered the only potential way to further sustainable institutional operations especially in the most difficult operational environments. The self-initiated financial management modes demonstrated such solutions. As a result, we argue that both sound institutional design and bricolage capabilities are required to successfully maintain the functionality of the water user institutions and water schemes in the challenging operational environments.

This brings us to the question of how then the bricolage could be facilitated, its potential drawbacks to sustainability evaded, and its potential for improved sustainability realised along with institutional designs. To address these issues, we argue for more ‘organic’ institutional designs: The first challenge of the apparent institutional designs is that they are often not explicitly articulated on behalf of triggering bricolage processes for sustainability. The potency is thus left under recognized and undervalued in the project designs, though the existing modalities software operations would support such facilitation. We see that the realisation of the potentials of facilitated bricolage processes would require more explicit application that would expose these potentials to the operational practices, monitoring and documentation. One proposal would be to explicitly plan for bricolage, by starting with a clear institutional design and then gradually allowing and even encouraging bricolage by the post-construction phase, while project staff are still involved and can provide guidance for sustainability.

Second, we see that more organic designs would generate facilitated spaces for institutional bricolage processes through providing, over time, locally legitimate and broadly inspiring spaces to local agencies for furthering sustainable activities. Developing and strengthening the capacity of critical institutions is an important element of the space within which the bricolage eventually occurs. We also stress the need to articulate the potential to facilitate bricolage processes beyond the operative levels, at the policy and other formal levels, given that the policy environment should allow certain amount of local adaptation. These suggestions are particularly important in the localities where informal, local institutions provide the basis for daily activities, but where the influence and support from formal institutions of governance remain relatively ineffective.