Community ownership works – and now there’s a Nobel Prize to prove it

by Global Washington Policy Coordinator Danielle Ellingston

OstromThis week the Nobel Prize is causing a lot of excitement in the blogosphere.  No, I’m not talking about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.  I’m talking about the Nobel Prize in Economics being awarded to Elinor Ostrom.  Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm,” according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “Elinor Ostrom has demonstrated how common property can be successfully managed by user associations,” challenging “the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized.”

In other words, community problems can be solved by the communities themselves at the local level.  Not the national or state government.  Not private sector businesses.  This idea holds a lot of potential for international development.  Indeed, many development problems are solved communally, especially in management of community resources, such as water and sanitation.

And when community resource problems are addressed by foreign governments and other actors like NGOs, they should take local institutions into account and use them whenever it makes sense.  Where local institutions to solve local problems don’t exist, the emphasis should be on creating an enabling environment for community action.  Or at least finding out why the community hasn’t found a solution, before plowing ahead with something imposed from outside the community.

Women’s Enterprises International is a Global Washington member that works with women’s groups in Kenya, Benin, Guatemala, and Indonesia to get clean water, education for children, and income-generating projects.  The Kenya project in particular is a good example of an NGO working with local community groups who are already organized to work on community problems.

Do you know of other organizations in Washington State that use a community leadership approach in solving the “tragedy of the commons?”  Tell us about them in the comments, and be sure to give links to websites!

  • Perrine

    I don't know of any Washington State-based organizations that work using a community leadership approach, however, I do know of a number of international organizations that use the community-driven development approach or community-driven reconstruction. This is a local governance approach to development which attempts to strengthen social cohesion by introducing a highly participatory and accountable process to choosing, designing and implementing local development projects. The World Bank <http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTR…> introduced and popularized the approach in a number of countries, while NGOs have adapted it. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has adapted the approach to support conflict-affected populations in acute emergencies, protracted emergencies, the return and reintegration phase, and finally in reconstruction. IRC programs have spanned African countries including the Democratic Republic, Liberia, Burundi, and Cote d'Ivoire and Asian countries including Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Indonesia….the list goes on. It is an approach that is highly dependent on local action for stability and has to be totally owned by the communities affected. More information about this can be found here http://www.theirc.org/governance-and-rights-unit.

  • Samantha

    It is definitely understandable that communities take on leadership roles for their own success and in order to solve local problems. Local townships are clearly more closely related to their own issues and have a vested interest in solving them. When government programs try to take over these issues, they often miss the ball. I was just listening to a program on NPR that discussed how when government passed the Clean Air Act, they inadvertently endorsed pollution of local water supplies because most tactics to solve air pollution end up putting pollutants in the water supply. In this respect, a government program has failed the local communities who have to drink from the locally tainted water due to a government infused policy that may be better for a larger number of people, but also life threatening to people in the community.