Iyinoluwa Aboyeji: The commons may not be so tragic (YNaija FrontPage)

Like Ostrom, I deeply believe individuals and communities –not government –should and could effectively manage their own collective resources regulation or privatization

Lookin’ for the remedy but you can’t see what’s hurting you,

The revolution’s here, the revolution is personal.

–       Talib Kweli (Beautiful Struggle)

As regulars of this column might know, this is the time of the month when we usually take time to highlight examples of citizens building bottom up institutions that can act as alternatives to government, give the tendency of ours to wander in the head a little bit.

However, for a worthy cause, we will be having a little bit of a change of plans this week.

You see, the idea that our monthly series is built around is that people can legitimately organize themselves, especially in the absence of government, to tend to their own common interest. No one better expressed this practical idea in academic theory than Elinor Ostrom. In fact, it was for this reason that in 2009, she became the first woman and political scientist ever, to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. Unfortunately, Ostrom passed away last Tuesday after a long battle with cancer.

What was particularly ground breaking about Ostrom’s work was her bold refuting of long accepted economic heuristic of the “tragedy of the commons”. Everyone who got through basic training in economics might have heard that phrase at least once before. For the uninitiated, the “tragedy of the commons”, is an economist’s deeply cynical way of saying he doesn’t trust human beings to act in the interest of a collective. According to this parable, very much like an open pasture where everyone can graze their sheep, individuals acting in self-interest ultimately deplete a resource that is open to everyone. This parable was used to demonstrate government regulation or privatization of the commons as necessities for governing the common interest.

Yet, in her academic research, especially in her book, “Governing the Commons”, Ostrom not only rejected this idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, she went on to chart a new path for governing the management of shared resources that looks beyond the influence of institutions like government and corporations to the impact small, closely knit communities can have in sharing and managing the commons. Like we do here, she often sought and offered examples of places where this approach has worked incredibly well. For example in the 1960’s the city of Los Angeles, co-operated to prevent sea water from contaminating the city’s fresh water supply. Again, in Nepal, she discovered the rudimentary irrigation systems the villager’s built were far more effective than the government’s white elephant river dam projects. She even found, (in a theme that may be familiar to Nigerians), that small local police departments were far more effective than the big and clunky metropolitan ones and that giving a community scope to set their own rules adapted to local conditions helps the community to monitor and enforce these rules. Even in her own life, she witnessed the power of small scale community action when she and her family participated in cultivating “victory gardens” to supplement national food supply.

Like Ostrom, I deeply believe individuals and communities –not government –should and could effectively manage their own collective resources regulation or privatization. As she once said, “What we have ignored is what citizens can do, as opposed to just having someone in Washington or at a far, far distance make a rule.”

This couldn’t be truer even in Nigeria. We self-organize within our communities, outside of government institutions, with the landlord and tenant association which ends up doing much of the government’s work. Even in the aftermath of our own recent National tragedy Dana Air Crash, private citizens were the ones who volunteered time and resources to help the displaced on the ground. Yet, in all of these we cry out to a deaf government for help and intervention and get a familiar silence as our answer.

My hope is that in the memory of the global impact Ostrom and her ideas have had on a world where the real tragedy of the commons is that they have been hijacked by the governments and corporations we assumed we  mandated to protect it, we will be inspired to come together as communities to act locally.


Editor’s note: Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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Comments (3)

  1. Well thought out. Yeah community actions and invlovment can produce great result but it doesn't answer to all the complex challenges facing a nation like ours.

  2. i agree with you…

  3. Brilliant. More and more, community action is obviously the way to go. Especially in terms of security.

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