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.

No comments: