What factors determine the performance of institutional mechanisms for water resources management in developing countries in terms of delivering pro-poor outcomes, and supporting sustainable economic growth? (systematic review)


This mapping exercise explores the nature of empirical research regarding: What factors determine the performance of institutional mechanisms for water resources management in developing countries in terms of delivering pro-poor outcomes, and supporting sustainable economic growth?

Adequate water resources for health, ecosystems and production are a global concern. Institutions capable of water resource management (WRM) in ways which support social and economic progress are urgently needed, particularly in developing countries. Participation, decentralisation, reform, and marketization are promoted, but evidence of what works, where and why is difficult to find: a significant problem for those faced with decisions about appropriate approaches to adopt and support. This work is a timely response to imperatives for evidence based decision making, and is a touchstone for improved analysis, policy and practice in the field of WRM.


Relevant academic and grey literature were identified through a comprehensive and peer reviewed search strategy. To be included, studies had to: 1) concern formal and informal rules, norms and strategies, including organisations, laws, regulations, conventions, systems and agreements relating to freshwater in rivers, lakes and groundwater; 2) show primary, empirical evidence of pro-poor or sustainable economic growth outcomes; 3) concern developing countries; and 4), be in English. Articles were progressively screened at abstract, title and full text level, prior to coding and mapping against agreed criteria. Mapped data were analysed and cross-tabulated to support interpretation.


29,844 articles returned by the search were reduced to a final sample of 38 relevant studies based on full text review. Analysis of this sample reveals:

i. Institutional mechanisms can be grouped into seven types: organisational; legal; participation; decentralisation; and markets; privatisation and infrastructure, with most articles considering multiples of these. Clusters emerge by geography and type (i.e. IWRM in East Africa, water markets in Chile).

ii. Factors which influence outcomes can be organised using six typologies and according to their origins: exogenous, endogenous or interface (after Saleth and Dinar 2005).

iii. A quarter of papers were judged to exhibit a weak chain of reasoning with only 11% judged as strong.

iv. Most were published since 2002, and where reported, important funding sources are DFID, IWMI, World Bank and the Natural Sciences Foundation of China. 19 countries feature with clusters of research in India, China, Tanzania and Chile.

v. Less than half of the papers in the sample provide an adequate description of methodology. Almost one in five provide no methodological description.


The systematic map confirms that the pool of reliable knowledge from which to draw is diminutive when the exacting standards of systematic mapping are applied. Whilst the imperatives for getting WRM ‘right’ are intuitively strong, we currently lack the evidence to: a) confirm whether WRM institutions are performing; and b) comprehend and manage the range of factors which shape that performance. Whilst clear cut evidence for universal determinants of institutional performance is not anticipated, it is startling how little good quality research links policy and institutions to outcomes, or diagnoses the root causes of performance.

The implications for international policy and practice are significant and demand an urgent response. Without adequate knowledge or metrics of the social and economic outcomes, and determinants of WRM, efforts to improve performance lack strategic direction and operational accountability, and funding, political and other support for improved performance is at risk. These findings demonstrate the need for radical improvement across the research cycle, including in commissioning, design, delivery, reporting, review and publishing. Specific recommendations based on the evidence and insights generated by this systematic map are set out in the report and summarised in Table I below.


Water resource management, Institutions, Mechanisms, Performance, Factors, Developing countries, Pro-poor, Sustainable economic growth, Evidence


Throughout history human potential has been profoundly influenced by access to adequate water and societal progress depends on our ability to harness water as a productive resource. At the beginning of the 21st century the availability of water in sufficient and reliable quantities and of acceptable quality to meet society‘s many needs is a global concern, heightened by increasing demand, and the uncertainties brought by climate change. Much of this concern focuses on less-developed and transitional regions of the world, in particular in parts of Africa, Asia and South America where water problems already have severe implications for human well-being.

Whilst climate and the distribution of water influences accessibility, physical scarcity is increasingly seen as a backdrop to what has been termed policy induced scarcity (UNDP 2006). Commentators argue that the so called world ̳water crisis‘ is primarily a crisis of management and poor governance (World Water Council 2003, SIWI 2007, UN-Water 2009). Although temporal and spatial distribution can be problematic it is the management of water and water resources rather than physical availability which are at the crux of this global water challenge.

Performance in water resource governance and management1 is ultimately determined by the performance of institutional mechanisms: the making and enforcing of rules – formal and informal – governing cooperative human behaviour. The search for ̳better‘ water management has become the focus of a large and disparate literature, and the rich and sometimes conflicting debates within it promote an array of approaches for improved institutional functioning towards the dual goals of poverty reduction and sustainable economic growth. Given the global diversity of water contexts which reflect differences in hydrology and geography; political, cultural and social environments; historical precedents and levels of economic development, this diversity of water management approaches is appropriate. But as described in the next section, the challenges facing those seeking to improve water management are conflated by an often weak empirical basis for many of the management strategies articulated in the literature. In terms of the circumstances required for water resource management institutions to deliver tangible benefits for poverty reduction and economic growth, and the nurturing of these via external support, surprisingly little is known about ̳what‘ works, ̳where‘ and ̳why?‘.

This systematic review aims to map the literature on water resource management (WRM) institutions, and to objectively appraise the evidence base for the range of factors2 which determine their performance in helping to deliver pro-poor outcomes and sustainable economic growth. As well as identifying these determinants of performance – their modes of influence, relative significance and the role of co-variables – the quality of the evidence base on institutional performance in water management will also be reviewed. The purpose of this work is to identify, characterise and promote an improved platform of high quality research and knowledge to support more effective interventions by policy-makers, practitioners, water users, advocacy groups and academics alike.

Following an overview of background literature, this protocol sets out the proposed methodology for the collation, analysis and synthesis of the evidence relating to this systematic review question.

1.1 Framing the literature

A substantial body of peer reviewed and grey literature is concerned with the optimal institutional mechanisms for sustainable, equitable and efficient water resource management. Much of this considers the performance of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and the institutional mechanisms it promotes. Advocates of IWRM, a dominant paradigm within the global water policy community since at least the 1990‘s recommend that water resource management be carried out by semi-autonomous authorities established at basin scale, supported or answerable to participatory platforms of water stakeholders or user associations, through reformed regulatory frameworks, which impose charging and licencing of water use, allocation priorities and principles such as polluter pays. These mechanisms enjoy qualified success in developed countries, for example contributing to meeting the requirements of the Water Framework Directive and successful river rehabilitation in Europe, but their performance in unlocking progress in developing country contexts is equivocal (Biswas 2008, GWP 2009, Molle 2009).

Opinion on why reformed institutional mechanisms seem slow to deliver desirable outcomes varies and is often conflicting. The following three schools of thought summarise the key arguments found in the literature:

Functional critiques specify certain factors as pre-requisites for the effective functioning of WRM institutions and imply that it is practical failures – a lack of ‘capacity’, data, analytical tools, staff, training, finance, coordination and communication – which hold back delivery (ADB 2003, Postel 2003, Schouten and Moriarty 2003, Rahaman et al. 2004, GWP 2009).

Social critiques argue that the dominant models for reforming the management of water resources are flawed and have negligible utility, particularly in helping the poor, because they pay insufficient regard to social and political realities (Allan 2003, Biswas 2004 and 2008, Cleaver et al. 2005, Swatuk 2008).

Progressive critiques use analytical insights to explore opportunities for progress, for example through ̳adaptive‘ WRM which responds to imperfect knowledge or ̳expedient‘ approaches which promote dialogue and ‘fit for purpose’ processes (see Rama Mohan Rao et al. 2003, Cleaver and Franks 2005, Allison and Hobbs 2004, Pahl-Wostl et al. 2005, Gearey and Jeffrey 2006, Lankford et al. 2006, Galaz 2007).

Within these critiques researchers consistently focus on or allude to interactions between factors which determine the performance of water resource management institutions. For example, some advocate that greater transparency and accountability will generate incentives for pro-poor WRM (UNDP 2006, Hepworth 2009). Others report shifting perceptions of IWRM‘s relevance in Africa and a growing appetite to see institutional mechanisms focus primarily on promoting water for growth and development (Pegasys, 2010). Reviews of water governance and management are also concerned with institutional performance in balancing competition for water between sectors (agricultural, industrial, domestic) or between users (urban/rural, poor/wealthy, private/public/individual) (e.g. Rogers 2002, Falkner 2003, Moss et al. 2003, Young, 2003, Batchelor 2006, Cleaver et al. 2006, Bruch et al.2010).

A growing area of research at the transboundary level explores opportunities for more effective cooperation and performance through both qualitative (e.g. hydro-hegemony Zeitoun and Warner 2006) and quantitative (TFDD 2008, Wolf et al. 2005, Gleditsch et al. 2006) literatures. Others promote greater attention to the conflict-mitigating and pressure- reducing role of virtual water (Allan, 2001) at basin and regional levels (Zeitoun et al. 2010, Verma et al. 2009, Warner and Johnson 2007) though others contest the value of this approach (Wichelns 2010).

This short overview captures only a fraction of the fragmented thinking and policy advice on water resource institutions, much of which lacks the support of grounded evidence. The UK Department for International Development‘s (DFID) initiation of a systematic review to locate, collate, critically appraise and objectively synthesise evidence on institutional performance in water resources as part of its drive for evidence-based policy making is therefore timely and judicious.

1.2 What do we mean by factors?

The performance of a given institutional mechanism is influenced by the contexts within which it operates, theoretical concerns related to its design and practical issues relating to the manner of implementation. Thus the factors, circumstances, causes or influencing elements – the determinants of performance – demand a necessarily wide definition at this stage in the systematic review. This loose definition is important in order to avoid prejudicial recovery from the literature of deductive work which tests pre-ordained, theorised factors for success over and above the potentially very valuable findings of inductive research. The purpose of this review is to map and assess the quality of the research literature related to institutional performance on water and to explore the factors which have been empirically identified within the research to influence or control delivery of desirable outcomes: poverty reduction and economic growth.

Compiling an exhaustive list of strictly defined factors prior to undertaking the systematic review is neither possible nor desirable. It is anticipated that these factors, or conditions, will be found both to emerge inductively from research and to be tested deductively based on ̳theorised‘ conditions for success. Nevertheless, for illustrative purposes potential factors can be grouped loosely within the functional, social and progressive domains outlined above. For example they may include functional considerations such as finance, ‘capacity’, data, analytical tools, staff, training, coordination and communication; social and political considerations including socio-economic status, levels of democratic deliberation, culture, customs, capture and corruption; or factors linked to progressive critiques such as incentives, legitimacy, authority and accountability.

The review team acknowledge the relevance of literature on institutional performance influenced by the work of Elinor Ostrom and associates. The factors leading to success or failure of natural resource governance are the focus of work on the ̳evolution of institutions for collective action‘ (Ostrom, 1990). Here a factor, or ̳design principle‘, is defined as an ̳essential element or condition that helps to account for the success of […] institutions in sustaining the common pool resource and gaining the long term compliance of appropriators to the rules in use‘ (Ostrom, 1990, p90). Based on analysis of a diverse set of case-studies, Ostrom proposed a list of eight factors or design principles shared by successful institutions regardless of the type of resource or context: well-defined boundaries; congruence between provision and appropriation rules and local conditions; collective-choice arrangements; monitoring; graduated sanctions, conflict-resolution mechanisms, minimum recognition of rights and nested enterprises.

Ostrom’s work on institutional performance has significantly influenced the analysis of natural resource governance, and there is some evidence to support the ̳design principles‘ framework. Nevertheless, this body of literature has been the subject of critiques which focus for example on the lack of attention given to the role of context in natural resource governance (Mosse 1997, Cleaver 2000, Bardhan 2000, 2005) and the socially embedded nature of institutions (Cleaver 2002, Edwards and Stein, 1999). Finally, Blaikie (2006) contests the case for ideal conditions that enable successful institutions because of the disjunction between theoretical design and the actual governance of resources.

This systematic review will provide an opportunity to build on these analyses by exploring the evidence for whether factors such as compliance with design principles determine successful outcomes within water resource management. The review team will also use this body of research to inform the discussion and narrative analysis of results.