Patronage or Participation? Community-based Natural Resource Management Reform in Sub-Saharan Africa


  • Fred Nelson,

    1. has worked on a range of field projects and policy processes related to community-based natural resource management, primarily in Tanzania, since 1998. He is currently the director of Maliasili Initiatives, PO Box 8372, Arusha, Tanzania; e-mail:
    Search for more papers by this author
  • Arun Agrawal

    1. teaches and carries out research as a Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment, Dana Building, 440 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1041, USA. He has published on environmental governance of pasturelands, forests, and wildlife, with a focus on livelihoods, biodiversity, and climate change. His work has appeared earlier in Conservation Biology, Development and Change, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science, and World Development.
    Search for more papers by this author

We acknowledge financial support for the work in this article from the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Bradley Fund for the Environment. Earlier drafts of this paper benefited greatly from comments provided by Simon Anstey, Clark Gibson, Jesse Ribot, Steven Yaffee and two anonymous referees.


This article examines the institutional factors that account for the outcome of efforts to decentralize control over natural resources to local communities. It focuses on the political nature of institutional processes associated with decentralization in sub-Saharan Africa through a comparative analysis of wildlife management reforms in seven east and southern African countries. Institutional reforms are largely dependent on state authorities' patronage interests, which in turn are shaped by the relative economic value of wildlife, the degree of central control over commercial utilization, and the accountability of governance institutions. Our findings have a range of practical implications for the design of CBNRM initiatives and institutional reform strategies.