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December 16, 2013

The View from Africa on Elinor Ostrom

Her research validates the value of traditional cooperative land management

At the time Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics, Kenyan human rights activist Kiror Sing’Oei argued that her win would be more significant to Africa’s future than that of Barack Obama, whose Nobel Peace Prize the same year was cheered across the continent.  This article first appeared in Pambazuka News, a comprehensive African news service. — Jay Walljasper

Since the 1960s, the predominant policy prescription for ensuring the 
 exploitation of land resources in Africa has been the
 individualisation of land held under custom. This move was largely 
driven by neoclassical economists influenced by Garrett Hardin, who called his
 famous 1968 essay on shared resources “The Tragedy of the Commons”.

Hardin persuasively argued that a shared village grazing pasture would
 tend to get overused and eventually destroyed because more people 
utilised the common grazing ground without paying for the cost of
 maintaining it, a phenomenon known in economics as free-riding. This
 view has inspired a variety of land reforms with a general trend toward 
market-oriented access to, and the privatisation of, land through 
private entitlement. The premise was simple: individualised tenure
 offers the best certainty in land rights, which provides incentives for
 sustainable use and which facilitates access to credit for investment in
 agriculture and natural resources, hence contributing to increased
 productivity and improved natural-resource stewardship.1

Evidence now suggests that this individualisation of common property has neither
 yielded the economic and environmental returns envisaged nor improved 
living standards for those affected. For instance, according to Rutten,
 a Dutch scholar who undertook extensive research work in Kajiado—one
 of the three Maasai districts in Kenya where the individualisation of
 title was pursued through the establishment of group ranches with 
funding from the World Bank and DfID (UK Department for International
 Development)—grazing land had reduced by well over 40 per cent over 
the period 1982 and 1990, leading to increased vulnerability and 
destitution of pastoralists,2 not to mention accelerated wanton 
environmental degradation.

By awarding Ostrom the prize, the Nobel Committee indicated that a paradigm shift has occurred and that in fact Hardin’s famous tragedy of the commons theory should no longer be treated with
 reverential deference. Consequently, the developmental superstructure
 based on Hardin’s theory must yield to more cooperative property 
regimes. Ostrom’s research suggests that far from a tragedy, the commons 
can be managed from the bottom-up for a shared prosperity, given the
 right institutions. In her study “Governing the commons: the evolution
 of institutions for collective action” (1990), based on numerous case
 examinations of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes and 
groundwater basins, Ostrom observes that resource users frequently 
develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule
 enforcement to handle conflicts of interest.

On this premise, she proceeded to propose eight “design principles” of stable local common pool 
resource management, most of which are not too dissimilar to
 those already in place in pastoral commons in the Sahelian regions of

These Sahelian common property systems, now codified as
 “pastoral codes”, allow for the surveying, mapping and 
recording of “all forms of existing and practiced land rights, such as 
they are perceived and presented by the holders of these rights
 themselves”.4 Ostrom’s proposals suggest that while markets can 
organise production and consumption pretty efficiently, they can only do
 so when supported and nurtured by networks and communities. In Ostrom’s 
thesis therefore, private associations often, unaided through state legislation, have managed to avoid the tragedy of the commons and develop efficient uses of resources.

Ostrom’s Nobel prize reinforced efforts aimed at the protection and promotion of indigenous
 systems of resource utilisation in Africa.

Because the resilience of indigenous systems of land management have
 time and again proven that commons do not have to end in tragedy, 
Ostrom’s Nobel was well-deserved. Such a shift will protect vulnerable communities and individuals
 from the unchecked market and environmental shocks that imperil their existence and threaten global food security.



1 Economic Commission for Africa, Land Tenure Systems and their
Impacts on Food Security and Sustainable Development in Africa (2004), p
2 M.M.E.M., Rutten Selling wealth to buy poverty : the process of the
individualization of landownership among the Maasai pastoralists of
Kajiado district, Kenya, 1890-1990 (1992, Verlag breitenbach Publishers,
Saarbrücken, Fort Lauderdale)
3 Volker Stamm Darmstadt, ‘New Trends in West African Land
Legislation? The Example of Cote d’Voire and Mali’ available at
4 Id.