The present contribution is an attempt to understand the conditions that impede some households and social groups in securing a decent livelihood by drawing on ‘purported’ facilitating institutions. It is generally agreed that access to livelihood assets is negotiated through institutions. However, the way in which these institutions operate in everyday practice and in specific contexts is less well understood. The four case studies presented here there- fore analyse how customary norms and state regulations work. The article argues that a deeper understanding of the working of institutions, which in turn influence who is excluded from and who is entitled to access a particu- lar livelihood asset, also provides a bridge to evidence-based development support.