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Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom: Her vision for common resource management

The tragedy of the commons, a lifelong suspicion of panaceas and the birth of 'Institutional Economics'.
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Bogor, Indonesia (15 June, 2012)_By the time Nobel Economics Laureate Elinor Ostrom died of pancreatic cancer earlier this week at age 78, she had already gone a long way to redefine the way social scientists and policymakers think about common resources, including CIFOR’s research focus on forests and other jointly exploited resources such as fisheries or pastureland.

Back in the 1940s, when Ostrom was pursuing her political science doctorate at the University of California in her native Los Angeles, conventional wisdom maintained that, left to their own devices, individual users of such shared resources would inevitably deplete them. This concept was later coined “Tragedy of the Commons,” in a seminal 1968 article by ecologist Garrett Hardin. The only remedy was to turn over the “commons” to either private or governmental control.

Ostrom nurtured a lifelong suspicion of a one-size-fits-all “panaceas.” For her, each type of “commons” called for its own set of governance regimens, which would vary according to the social and ecological context. The stakeholders in each “commons” had every reason to evolve such governance regimens on their own, if given a chance, Ostrom argued. Under their stewardship, the “commons” would fare as well or better than under private or government ownership.

To assess the comparative health of “commons” under different types of management, Ostrom used research methods ranging from grassroots field interviews with individual stakeholders, about their governance solutions, to eye-in-the-sky satellite imagery. Frowned upon by some and lauded by others, her methods were at odds with the increasingly mathematical nature of 1970s economics research methodology.

Nevertheless, her approach attracted a growing circle of adherents, especially after the publication of her discipline-altering book, “Governing the Commons” (1990). Eventually it gave rise to a school of economic thought in its own right – “Institutional Economics.” At Indiana University, where she taught for the past 47 years, Ostrom and her husband, political scientist Victor Ostrom jointly founded a Workshop on Political Theory and Analysis to advance their ideas.

Routinely employed at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), “Institutional Economics” has proven a powerful analytic tool for approaching forest issues. As early as 1992, at the behest of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Ostrom pioneered a multi-country research project with the International Forestry Resources and Institutions Program (IFRI). Using satellite imagery to assess how governance arrangements shape forest degradation, Ostrom showed new ways to weigh trade-offs for forest conservation, carbon sequestration and the promotion of forest-dwellers’ livelihoods.

By her own account and that of others, Ostrom’s vision of sustainability and resource management dates back to her childhood in Depression Era Southern California. Growing and canning vegetables with her mother in their backyard “Victory Garden,” Ostrom learned that “most people, when presented with a resource problem, can co-operate and act for the common good.”

She pursued this insight from her 1945 University of California PhD dissertation on the collective bargaining of a community group fighting for clean water rights to her 15-year study of her local police department as a young professor.

Although leery of “panaceas,” Ostrom did recognise eight guiding principles that seem to recur in successful governance regimens for sustainable resources:

-Clear rules for inclusion of stakeholders

-Locally appropriate rules for resource apportionment

-Inclusive and transparent decision-making mechanisms

-Effective monitoring

-Appropriate and enforceable sanctions for violators

-Realistic and accessible conflict-resolution procedures

-Official recognition of stakeholders’ collective rights

-Interlocking echelons of stake-holder governance, as needed, from the micro- to the macro-level

Ostrom kept returning to these themes up to the end. In an editorial she wrote the day she died, she cautioned delegates to the upcoming Rio +20 summit that, “we cannot rely on singular global policies to solve the problem of managing our common resources: The oceans, atmosphere, forests, waterways, and rich diversity of life that combine to create the right conditions for life, including seven billion humans, to thrive.”

The global proliferation, city by city, of urban emission targets offers a sterling example of how “grassroots” solutions can percolate upwards. “Fundamentally, this is the right approach for managing systemic risk and change in complex interconnected systems,“ she said, “Though it has yet to dent the inexorable rise in global greenhouse-gas emissions.”

However, she reminded the Rio congregants, “Our primary goal must be to take planetary responsibility for this risk, rather than placing in jeopardy the welfare of future generations,” she said.

Freshly available on the International Journal of the Commons (ICJ) website, and in the August 2012 print edition of the IJC, is an article Ostrom wrote (in conjunction with Harini Nagendra) titled Polycentric governance of multifunctional forested landscapes. The article is a part of a special feature titled “Multi-level governance of forest resources for equity, effectiveness and efficiency”, guest-edited by CIFOR scientists Esther Mwangi and Andrew Wardell.


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