Elinor Ostrom- the “non-tragedy of the commons”

The only woman to have received the Nobel Prize in Economics- Elinor Ostrom, passed away on June 12. She is popularly known for her work in natural resource management and common pool resources; water, forests, fisheries- collective resources whose availability for one group of users can be depleted by others. Ecologist Garrett Hardin, coined the phrase “Tragedy of the Commons”- where people thinking only of their own self-interest, deplete a shared resource , e.g.the overgrazing of pastures. He saw two solutions to this problem; 1) resource regulation through government intervention and 2) privatization.

Ostrom’s work challenged Hardin’s approach to the “Tragedy of the Commons”, arguing that individuals and communities could manage their own collective resources. Her field research in Maine, Indonesia, Nepal and Kenya led to the development of a set of design principles which have supported effective mobilization for local management of common pool resources (CPR) in a variety of areas.

She argued that common resources are well managed when those who benefit from them the most are in close proximity to that resource. For her, the tragedy occurred when external groups exerted their power (politically, economically or socially) to gain a personal advantage. She was greatly supportive of the “bottom up” approach to issues; government intervention could not be effective unless supported by individuals and communities.

Her work with common pool resources can be linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, which deals with common pool resources. We’ve also talked about designing incentives that will create behavioural change in policy makers, local institutions and farmers themselves as a pathway to progress in poverty alleviation. Ostrom’s work was based on the principle that common resources are well managed by those communities that benefit the most from them and that their regulation should be addressed at the local level, through the farmers, communities, local authorities and NGOs. Her work showed the importance of different institutions working together, a concept echoed at Rio+20 as a necessary component in achieving sustainable development.

This is especially relevant to this research program and its components as there are many lessons that can be learned from her work. Her set of design principles for common pool resource institutions and forward thinking on collective action offer such lessons, especially in helping design incentives for collective action at various levels that will help increase food security and improve livelihoods whilst sustainably managing natural resources.

Her death is not only a great loss to the field of NRM but also to the world as a whole. She will be missed.

What do you think are her most important contributions and what are the links to the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems?

See what some colleagues had to say about her passing on the Guardian’s blog- Poverty Matters.