Crime and punishment: the challenges of free-riding and peer sanctioning in the rural water sector – lessons from an innovation in Uganda

Julia Brown, Marije van den Broek

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Across sub-Saharan Africa the performance of Community Based Management (CBM) for rural water has been disappointing, with studies indicating insufficient funds collected for necessary repairs to the handpumps used to access groundwater, upon which millions depend. Free-riding, usually representing a crime against the collective good, is endemic here because peer sanctioning of transgressors proves socially divisive. This study, the result of extensive fieldwork, presents original data on the outcomes of an alternative model, CBM-lite, piloted in mid-west Uganda. A Water Operator from the community was financially incentivised to collect the user fees, though graduated sanctions were still to be determined and enforced by community structures. CBM-lite saw the repair of handpumps utilising funds released by a microfinance institution due to regular deposits. People are prepared to pay for reactive maintenance, but reject the concept of preventative contributions: free-riding resumed once handpumps were functional because sanctioning again proved too challenging. The paper makes a number of significant contributions to environmental governance debates. First, any management model not designed to overcome the public good problem of free-riding will fail to achieve sustainable results. Second, the research identified deeply ingrained social norms that counter-intuitively consider individual advancement a greater crime than free-riding, condoning social-levelling peer punishment of the pilot Water Operators. Depersonalising interactions via pre-payment technologies may hold potential. Equally, differentiating a hierarchy of social norms may present some leverage for nudging, with context appropriate communication, of less culturally ingrained behaviour, to promote for example an acceptance of preventative maintenance.
Original languageEnglish
Article number0
Pages (from-to)41-51
Number of pages11
Early online date4 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2020


  • rural groundwater
  • sub-Saharan Africa
  • community based management
  • public good problem free-ridiing
  • operation and maitenance
  • sustainability


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