Saturday, November 28, 2009

If not 'Open Access,' what are Commons?

Realizing that 'commons' are not 'open access,' (and that Garrett Hardin should have referred to the "Tradedy of Open Access,") then we can turn to asking what Commons really are: Like 'open access' resources, Commns are 'subtractable and exclusion is not easy,' but the feature that distinguishes Commons from 'open access' are that they are managed. Using ethnographic background, experimental economics (game theory) and empirical evidence, Ostrom (1990) was able to describe the kinds of social structures which facilitate equitable and sustainable governance of natural resource appropriations--which contrast sharply with the "free for all" of 'open access'.

There need not be anything different in the nature of the resource itself (such as the physical boundaries of the resource system) which distinguish 'CPR regimes' from 'open access regimes.' Rather, the two property rights (tenure) regimes are distinguishable based on the nature of the governance Institutions. Further, just because communities could claim a right to a resource, does not THEREFORE mean that their resource is governed by a CPR regime. Ineffective institutions are effectively just as bad for socio-economic and environmental outcomes as is 'open access.' This is why it is so critical to build an understanding (based on empirical evidence) of what sort of governing arrangements are likely to work in given contexts--and this is where Ostrom's (2007) "Going Beyond Panaceas" is so important - and where Amartya Sen's (2009) concern that just having some kind of institutions in place is not enough, can be addressed: The institutions have to work. 

Of course any governance system is dynamic and will experience higher and lower levels of functioning over time. But given time to develop, contexts with strong "instutional capital" (or basis for collective action - with components such as 'social cohesion,' 'respect,' and 'reciprocity,') are more likely to promote the maintenance of effective governance arrangements, which promote equitable, efficient, and effective management of the resources. It is important to remember that there is a distinction between the geo-physical nature of a natural resource, and the institutional components of the governance arrangements used to manage access to and the use of those resources. It is only without these effective governance arrangements that CPR become mis-managed, and this can lead to the 'tragic' degredation and depletion of the resource.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

NREGA "social audit" of Oct 2009: Outcomes in press

Highlighted results:

The total amount of funds the audit seeks to recover are: Rs. 18,37,000 ($38,250 USD)!

12 FIRs (First Information Reports, to identify cases of suspected corruption to authorities) have been filed... mostly for having used construction machines rather than man-power; the NREGA requires that manpower be used, and 60% of funds support this, and only 40% go to purchasing material inputs...

And, this was the biggest social audit to date - was quite something to see 1,800 people hosted in the community club in Bhilwara!

See sources:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dr. Elinor Ostrom awarded Nobel Prize for Economic Governance 2009

Today, 12 October 2009, it was announced that Professor Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Governance shared with Professor Oliver E. Williamson for 2009. Professor Ostrom, the first woman ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Economics, was recognized "for her analysis of economic governance, especially the Commons." This recognition elevates the discussion on Commons, such as land and water resources managed collectively, which provide a critical ‘safety net’ for over 2.5 billion rural poor across the globe. Professor Ostrom is Director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change (CSIPEC), and Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science at the Indiana University-Bloomington School of Public and Environmental Affairs. As a founding member of the International Association for the Study of Commons (IASC), Professor Ostrom has guided all the past Conferences of the IASC, and as a prolific author, contributed significantly to the field. Key works she has authored or co-authored include the following books: Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice (2007); Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005); The Samaritans' Dilemma (2005); Trust and Reciprocity: Interdisciplinary Lessons from Experimental Research (2003); Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990). 

The recognition of Professor Ostrom’s work on Commons would help in elevating the profile of the 13th Biennial IASC Conference to be held for the first time in South Asia, hosted by the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) from 10th to 14th 
January 2011 in Hyderabad, India. We all join in congratulating Professor Ostrom on her receipt of this distinguished award. 

For further reading, please visit: 

National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of 2005: "Social Audit" in Rajasthan, 2009

For the past fortnight (30 October to 12 September 2009), as required every six months by the central Government of India (GoI) according to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of 2005, a "social audit," or continuous process of public vigilance, of the NREGA work schemes, was conducted in the Bhilwara District of Rajasthan State, to hold government officials to account. Nearly 2,000 citizen and social activist volunteers forming 135 teams of around 15 people participated as volunteers. Teams were assigned three panchayats each, which they reached by walking nearly 8-10 kilometers per day, where they were lodged and fed by local people, as paid for by the central GoI. In every tenth panchayat, one team conducted an intensive all-inclusive audit. The other teams scanned records and only investigated select cases.

To conduct the audit, the teams reviewed public records, including muster rolls (or attendance sheets) receipts for promised work, household job cards and post-office payment records. The teams had a "check-list" of things to look for. Such objectives were to ensure that each worker was paid the correct amount and on time; that no "ghost workers" were paid; and that all materials purchased for each 15-day work project were made according to the specifications of the Act, such as not hiring private contractors, or over purchasing materials, or quoting old prices for materials, etc. The teams also measured construction projects (roads, holding walls) built by NREGS workers to confirm the dimensions stipulated in the records matched what was actually built. Above all, the auditors were to watch that public officials did not seek personal financial gain through skimming off public funds for themselves - an all too common form of corruption still plaguing the NREG Schemes and other government programs in India.

On Saturday, 10 October 2009, teams convened to host a panchayat (village-level) public hearing or "Gram Sabha" (conducted in Hindi) to inform district-level administrators in Rajasthan of their findings, with town residents present as witnesses. Any findings of discrepancies in records were detailed with supporting-evidence, and the panchayat-level government official who signed the record was called forward to present his/her case. In the Gram Sabha conducted in Bulerias, Rajasthan, one public official was found to have fudged records and taken Rs. 1lakh 330 INR (100,330 rupees) or $2,090 USD. When pressed, he returned the money to the panchayat; however, there were questions as to how he had sourced this money, and whether it was a legit return of funds to the State.

The next day, Sunday 11 October 2009, a larger "Jan Sunwais" or district-level public hearing was conducted in the city of Bhilwara itself. Key figures such as Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey were present. Shri CP Joshi, Central Minister of the Indian Naitonal Congress (INC) Party from Rajasthan, gave a statement that came across as a bit controversial, suggesting the "social audit" is not meant to be 'punitive,' but rather 'corrective'--meaning that if those officials who took money would return it, they would not be prosecuted for charges of corruption, stealing from public funds. Thus, the "social audit" uncovered incidents of corruption - yet the work continues to recover the funds, and find the right incentives to prevent corruption occurring between now and the next social audit. Indeed, following the lead of the State of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan State is planning to institutionalize the social audit even further.

Participating in this innovative, grass-roots movement, which involves citizens directly in monitoring of corruption in government, was fascinating. In addition to meeting many smart, funny, kind and hard-working people, one of the perks for me was getting a personalized autograph from Aruna-ji herself, who I found to be inspiring and very committed to this important social justice cause.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Useful theoretical analysis from the World Bank, RE: The problematic 'Everybody's Property is Nobody's Property':

"It is essential to understand that property is not an object such as land, but is rather a right to a benefit stream that is only as secure as the duty of all others to respect the conditions that protect that stream. When one has a right one has the expectation in both the law and in practice that their  claims will be respected by those with duty," (p. 5)...

"Because there are no property rights in an open access situation, it is logically inconsistent to assert -- as many often do -- that 'everybody's property is nobody's property.' It can only be said that 'everybody's access is nobody's property,'" (p. 19).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Supplant "Common Knowledge" with "Common(s)Knowledge"

Ever since Hardin (1968) published 'The Tragedy of Commons' in Science, 'Common Knowledge' would tell us that: 'Everybody's property is nobody's property,' meaning that whenever resources are used collectively without private ownership, eventually, the resources would be exploited, degraded, and perhaps ultimately, tragically, depleted--so that nobody could use them anymore.

Common(s)Knowledge--a new synthesized understanding of the classic and current research on policy, practice and theory on Commons--tells another story. That is, as Hardin (1998) himself later acknowledged: The 'tragedy' is not inevitable--unless Commons go unmanaged. Right off, to shift the paradigm, "Common Pool/Property Resource (CPR) Regimes" must be distinguished from "Open-Access Property Regimes:"

CPR Regimes stipulate rules for resource consumption (and perhaps even replenishment!). Whereas, in Open-Access Regimes, such appropriate governing arrangements are lacking, such that people may face scarcity of resources, and the ecological health of an area may deteriorate without recourse.

It may be tempting to then turn to "Private Property Regimes" as 'Common Knowledge' would have us do... However, odds are that people may likely be better off according to a variety of important social and economic indicators when resources are managed under common pool resource (CPR) regimes compared to private property regimes--such as regimes that would privatize water or issue individual title deeds to land. This, according to findings from quantitative, qualitative and experimental economics studies (Lesorogol, 2008; Agrawal, 2003; Ostrom, 1990).

The choice between selecting Private Property and CPR regimes arises when one must grapple with the problem of "subractability." - A resource is "subtractable" if 'the more people that use a good, the less of the good there will be for later use'.

By way of explanation, Public Goods, such as clean air--a collective 'natural resource' regulated by national environmental laws and international treaties--are NOT subtractable. Neither are goods such as toll highways subtractable; however, toll booths Restrict Access to goods. Toll booths are an economic instrument selected not always to manage the toll highway itself, but perhaps to generate income for maintenance of other public goods.

The idea behind Private Property is that, when a resource is subtractable - such as water: (if I drink a well dry, you won't have water), you may want to restrict my access in order to prevent the resource from being subtracted (depleted). Now, when we speak of CPR, we are also talking about goods that are subractable - the more you use, the less I can - but the key is: There are more options to achieve socially equitable and environmentally sustainable distribution and management of commonly-used resources than simple restriction of access through privatization.

What then are these CPR Regimes? How do they work? Do they work? Ostrom (1990, p. 90) provided a list of 'design principles' for the establishment of (local) institutions which have been empirically demonstrated to promote sustainable management of Commons resources. In fact, there is a wide literature on such institutions.

However, there are 'no panaceas' when it comes to designing the right institutions to achieve natural resource management and rural development goals (Ostrom, 2007). Rather, it is necessary to choose the 'best fit' for the given resource system (Ibid, 2007). The appropriate property regime may be Private Property in one case, and a CPR regime in another.

Ostrom (2007) and later Basurto and Ostrom (2009) advise using a "diagnostic" approach to selecting appropriate institutional arrangements for sustainable/equitable Commons Management. Like in medicine, each individual is unique; yet humans suffer common ailments - a cold has similar symptoms in me as it does in you: Same with institutions managing complex resources. When resources are scarce, certain rules of extraction make more sense than other rules. Guided by this theory, empirical studies can help us select those institutional options that are most often supported by evidence to inform policy and practice.

Last, policy and program monitoring and evaluation can help us to assess how effective these institutions are at actually delivering just distribution of resources without compromising access to these resources in the future... as for future generations - thereby actually realizing social justice and environmental conservation goals (Sen, 2009).

Here, you are invited to build your Common(s)Knowledge, supplanting the tragically outdated 'Common Knowledge' on Commons.