Governing the commons

Governing the Commons

"The commons" is a term used to refer to resources which are shared in which each and every stakeholder has equal interest. Common-Pool-Resources on the other hand may be defined as resources which are either natural or man-made where the use of one person subtracts from another person's use. It's always very costly and difficult to exclude other people outside the group from accessing the same resources. They are faced by two problems, these are; problem of provision and that of appropriation. Some of these resources are grazing systems, fisheries, forestry, agriculture, irrigation systems, water resources as well as global commons. One of the issues cropping up in this regard is that whenever a certain group of people rely on a certain resource that is used by everybody and yet not owned by anyone and where use by one person always affect the ability of another person to use the same resource, the population will either fail to provide that resource, fail to replenish it, over consume it or come up with an institution to be used in undertaking and managing the collection action of the population. In the same line of thought, there are numerous problems which are encountered in managing the commons. Studies which have been carried out have clearly illustrated the exposition that tragedies of commons are real though they cannot be avoided (Ostrom, E. & National Research Council (U.S.), 2002). Developing a framework within which sustainable use will be attained is not an easy task and also involves a lot of errors too. However, adoption of appropriate policies can go a long way in solving the dilemma. The problem can be seen from individual, government and collective perspectives.

Every individual entitled to a common pool resource possesses the desire to maximize on the resource spurred by the notion that even if he does not utilize the resource at that particular time, another person will do that. It's a rational decision which later accumulates to an outcome which is socially irrational. This leads to resource destruction, resources which all individuals depend on. Essentially, all the advantage will be gained by an individual but the disadvantages will be shared by all those using the common resource. Example is pastures and fisheries. The government on the other hand is vested with the responsibility of ensuring that a common resource is used sustainably. It has to ensure that every party entitled to the resource gets his rightful share without some exploiting them at the expense of the others. It's therefore faced with a dire challenge of instituting programs which will effectively achieve these objectives. Collectively, with many players involved in managing common pool resources there will always be a conflict of interests regarding the optimal management of the common resource.

One major problem pertinent to managing commons is lack of consistent leadership. One factor determining the long term viability of managing a common, example irrigation is having a leadership which is consistent and that which has the ability to adapt to changing situations and circumstances. Failure to have such leadership leads to problems in communication among the stakeholders which can even be worse if there is ethnic heterogeneity (Lam & Ostrom, 2009). Coping with change also poses as a problem to managing commons even in instances when there is strong leadership in place. Ability to cope with change fosters the ability to render a consistent leadership. A good example of good leadership can be seen in an irrigation experiment done in Nepal by Wai lam and Elinor Ostrom in an article dated 5th may 2009.

The other problem which will persist regardless of whether there are active leaders is unwillingness of the stakeholders to get involved in a collective action in ensuring that the system designed to manage the common is operated and maintained effectively and efficiently. Presence of collective action breeds norms, trust and a mutual understanding between the stakeholders as they work together. Absence of the common understanding and trust will always hinder collective problem solving in other instances. In the same line of thought, achieving collective action and maintaining it at a given level are two different things with the latter proving to be a substantial challenge. An example of public policy issue can be drawn on collective action can be dawn from water and Energy Commission Secretariat (WESC0 of Nepal and the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI). In Siran Baguwa (system 14), the system picked up very well in the early days after its inception because the members were enthusiastic and were willing to participate in collective action for the project. However, when some of the farmers later on stopped participating in collective action the system began to fall apart. The leaders could not solve the conflicts either further escalating the problem (Lam & Ostrom, 2009). The ability of the stakeholders of a common Pool resource to come up with specifications on how those who violate the laid down guidelines of utilizing the commons will be punished is also a problem. This has led to errant stakeholders violating the rules at will derailing the efforts of the masses to achieve their objectives (Arun, 2002).

The other problem is diversity challenge which is more applicable when it comes to global commons. This is a major hindrance in striking deadlocks and evoking shared interests. Misunderstandings in this case may arise because different people have different culturally defined interests in the common pool resources. This is further worsened by at global level by the wide gap between the industrialized and less developed countries. However, the aspect of cultural diversity can also be seen as a source of hope when it comes to coming with new and diverse ways of utilizing common pool resources (Ostrom et al, 1999).

The other problem is complications arising from Common Pool Resources which are interlinked. As specialization takes root, individuals are becoming more interdependent. This means that atone point or the other the individual shares common interests. This however does not mean that they are beginning to view issues related to common pool resources from a unified perspective. If anything they are growing more "distant" in the ways in which they respond to issues facing them. It becomes hard to understand the significance of Common Pool resources and the dire need to work collaboratively to utilize these resources sustainably and successfully. With such a prevailing environment of complexities, realization of fair solutions in such situation becomes a daunting challenge (Ostrom et al, 1999).

The next problem experienced in managing commons is the increasing rates of change. Changes have continued to be experienced and the rates at which they are occurring now are increasing. Important aspects like population growth, capital and labor mobility, economic growth and technological change are all pushing the common pool resources beyond the threshold they used to have. These changes are impacting on the ways in which common pool resources are to be shared among the various stakeholders. This also extends to creating more differences and problems in managing them (Ostrom et al, 1999).

In trying to resolve these problems, policy makers need to come up with legal environments that foster responsibility on the part of the stakeholders. The policy programs which they devise should be based on accurate information to enable them develop helpful mechanisms of conflict resolution. The programs should also be able to enable the stakeholders derive benefits which are tangible within a relatively shorter period of time. The best policy to cope with the problems of managing common pool resources should be community based. This is preference to approaches like authority and control of centralized government and top down approaches. They are effective in commanding self-governance and cooperation. If past is anything to go by, they have been quite in effective in managing common pool resources like water, fisheries and other natural resources. However, no single policy program stands as the best. One of them is state-society-synergy where the government and community work collaboratively to ensure that there is equity among all the concerned parties. Example is fisheries where every fisherman would want to fish. This policy program is effective in helping the community members be responsible when utilizing the common pool resource in question. It also helps restore normalcy as the government plays a more pivotal supervisory role. Self governance is another policy program though its effectiveness is highly limited due to the diverse interests of the concerned parties. However, various researches have established that it's very effective in forest resources where users have managed to self-organize themselves (Ostrom, 1999). Bureaucratic policy program on the other hand is largely dependent on the political will and availability of funds. It's also hinged on the community members' ability to take action. It's very appropriate when there is a need to sacrifice some freedom on the part of the community to enhance or protect a common pool resource (Baden &Noonan, 1998). Example is in an airshed. However, this program limits member's participation in management because the rules are highly formal


Arun, A. (2002). Common Resources and Institutional Sustainability. Retrieved from

Baden, J., & Noonan, D.S. (1998). Managing the commons. New York: Indiana University Press.

Lam, W. F. & Ostrom, E. (2009). Analyzing the dynamic complexity of development interventions: lesson from an irrigation experiment in Nepal. (Springer Science+Business Media, 2009).

Nagel, S. S. (2002). Handbook of public policy evaluation. New York: SAGE.

Ostrom, E, et al. (1999). Revisiting the commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges. Science Compass

Ostrom, E. & National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change. (2002).The drama of the commons. New York: National Academies Press.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action. London: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, E. (1999).Self-governance and forests resources. Center for International Forestry Research

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