Common Resources and Institutional Sustainability

Summary of: Common Resources and Institutional Sustainability

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While existing studies on institutions for common-pool resource management have generated a relatively large number of universal design principles common to successful institutions, these principles apply to the institutions themselves; future research should include contextual factors of the resource, user group and external environment and focus on specific causal configurations of a more narrow range of interacting variables.

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National Academy Press


  • User-friendly institutional characteristics can be crucial to maintaining a commons, including choices that "encourage fairness in the allocation of benefits from the commons; grant autonomy to users for crafting, implementing, and enforcing institutional arrangements that they identify as being critical in managing resources; institutionalize low-cost mechanisms for adjudication of disputes; promote accountability of office holders to users; and create local-level incentives to develop substitutes."
  • The relation between group size and collective action is not as simple as often described. The impact of group size is affected by many other variables, including "productive technology of the collective good, its degree of excludability, jointness of supply, and the level of heterogeneity in the group."
  • Certain causal configurations of variables surrounding a commons might contradict the universal principles arrived at by sampling hundreds of long-standing institutions. For instance, unpredictability in the flow of benefits from a resource or group mobility might require the boundaries on the resource and group membership to be blurred enough to accommodate fluctuations.
  • The time is ripe for better design principles for institutions for collective action: "national governments in nearly all developing countries have turned to local-level common property institutions in the past decade as a new policy thrust to decentralize the governance of the environment."

Social theorists of the late nineteenth century, such as Comte, Durkheim, Marx, Spencer, Tonnies and Weber, along with anthropologists of indigenous peoples have argued that with industrialization, modern societies will inevitably experience a decline in the norms that protect communal life. Throughout the twentieth century, in place of these norms, markets, states, and contractual obligations emerged as the appropriate means of dealing with common property. Nevertheless, recent scholarship on common property has shown that users are successful in distributing benefits "equitably, over long time periods, and with only limited efficiency losses." Three papers on the commons, by Wade (1994), Ostrom (1990), and Baland and Platteau (1996), have sought out facilitating conditions for sustainable common-property institutions, albeit through different empirical methods. Their overlapping principles are a good starting place for crafting successful institutions for collective action, but their work can also be used as a stepping ladder to more rigorous studies and predictive conclusions.

Wade argues that environmental risks help push people toward interdependence and defending their crucial commons. He also points to limited numbers of users who are not scattered over a large area, proximity between users and resource, clear boundaries of the user group and resource, easy detection of rule-breakers, graduated sanctions, low-cost exclusion technologies and recognition of local authority by central government as other facilitating conditions. These conditions are duplicated in much of the other literature on commons.

Ostrom lists eight design principles and qualifies sustainability on the legitimate acceptance of rules and obligations of the institution by subsequent generations of users. For her interests in long-term sustainability, Ostrom looks to successful long-standing institutions for her guiding principles, rather than starting with theoretical, causally-linked variables and then picking her sample. She cites as important principles, along with Wade, clear boundaries on user group and resource, homogeneity among users, locally-devised rules that are easy to implement, graduated sanctions and recognition from the central government.

Baland and Platteau confirm that regulated common property systems can be just as efficient as private property systems. They list principles that overlap with those mentioned above, also including past experiences of cooperation, external aid and strong leadership. They do not delve into how different factors might interact with each other, but instead list them as facilitating conditions in general.

Missing from the three articles is extensive attention to resource characteristics. For example, climatic information would be a significant factor in possibility of regeneration of an agricultural resource and the migratory patterns of a herd would be serious limiting factor for its local management. Small group size might not be a facilitating condition in certain situations, considering the "mobility of the resource, and volatility and unpredictability in the flow of benefits from a resource." Contextual factors like demographic conditions or local market demands, while not emphasized in any of the three articles, can be crucial factors in the viability of a commonly managed resource.