A woman operates a hand pump to draw water for her family and others by the roadside in Idar, northern Gujarat. Credit: Getty Images
In economic terms, inefficiencies arise when interests do not align between the agent (who is acting on behalf of the principal) and the principal (a group or individual who authorizes the agent to act on his behalf). Agency is the relationship between these two, and has practical implications in the field of natural resource management (NRM) such as the provision, management and safeguarding of water.
In accordance with traditional power structures in developing countries, the task of collecting water invariably falls to rural women. Yet, the role of women in local governance of water resources is traditionally passive. There is a principal-agent problem here: the agent (typically male groups) do not act in the best interests of the principal (the women who have to collect water).
Namrata Chindarkar and Yvonne Jie Chen, Assistant Professors at the LKY School in Singapore, examine these in a study they conducted in Gujarat, India. Their study surveyed two adjacent sub-districts in Sabarkanta in Gujurat, Bayad and Dhansura.
As per a tendering process, in Bayad the contract to service community hand pumps was awarded to an all-women group called the “barefoot mechanics” organized under the ‘Self Employed Women’s Association’ (SEWA). In Dhansura, community handpumps were serviced by a regular contractor, a team of male members.
They found that women working in water service delivery resulted in not only better service quality, but it also had positive effects on female labour market participation.
SEWA women or “barefoot mechanics” provided better quality services because they had a greater sense of social responsibility towards maintaining these handpumps — as it is the women in a family that are solely in charge of drawing water resources. Women were also driven to provide better services as they gained non-monetary benefits such as higher life satisfaction and community respect.
As service quality improved, the time taken to repair a broken handpump also decreased. This led to significant reductions in the time spent on water collection and thus reductions in the opportunity cost of water collection. On the other hand, better service quality means there is a higher probability of a woman’s engagement in income generating activity; in SEWA-serviced villages, the probability of women participating in income generating activities is 17 percent higher than non-SEWA serviced villages. However, this did not necessarily translate into a greater probability of securing jobs.
Instead of merely providing access to public infrastructure, policymakers could examine policy that meets gender needs by giving women greater control in resource management. Meeting these practical gender needs, however, would not be without challenging institutionalised forms of discrimination engendered by patriarchal societies.
This article was originally published on Global-Is-Asian.