The Commons: A form of collective governance


  By Stéphanie Leyronas

► Environmental and social sustainability [+]

The issue of environmental and social sustainability is core to the operations financed by AFD. It is reflected in support for public policies and the implementation of innovative mechanisms to manage resources and infrastructure. The Commons provide a response to the mixed results achieved in the effectiveness of public governance and market dynamics in a number of situations. They offer a form of collective governance which has demonstrated results in terms of environmental sustainability, equity and conflict resolution. They are defined on the basis of three elements: a resource, a community and a series of rights and obligations. The resource may be physical, such as pastureland managed by a community, or intangible, such as open source software. They constitute a theoretical framework and offer a number of operational cases which make it possible to break away from the public/private dichotomy. The public, private, Commons triptych in the regulation of economic activities is worth reconsidering: its balance is a matter of political choices.

The concept of “Common Good” or “Common” has taken a prominent place in the media world since the Nobel Prize was awarded in 2009 to the political scientist Elinor Ostrom and economist Oliver Williamson. Ostrom has demonstrated, on an empirical basis, that a number of natural resources (Common Pool Resources, CPR), which are generally renewable, can be well managed locally by small and diverse communities who create their own ad hoc standards to avoid the collapse of their resources. It is in vigorous opposition to the “Tragedy of the Commons” theorized by Garret Hardin in 1968, which stipulates that when there is free access to a resource, each user is spontaneously led to draw on the resource without limitation, leading to its disappearance.

The Commons have a long history, which is sometimes unknown. Hundreds of researchers all over the world have produced a rich body of studies, mainly on the joint management of natural resources in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Commons reexamine the traditional foundations of economics, law, sociology and political science and are subject to a number of debates that cut across the disciplines. Networks have been built outside the academic world: militants, social and political leaders, and social and collective movements have seized upon the Commons. A multidisciplinary approach to the Commons is the only way to grasp the diversity of visions.

The Commons are not a recipe that the North could set aside for the South: their success depends on a number of factors, they are difficult to structure and strengthen over time. As they are based on processes that are constantly renewed, they are a source of uncertainty. They raise a number of issues: their emergence, their sustainability, the position of public authorities, legitimacy of rules, access conditions, transaction costs, legal coordination and the impacts in terms of development.

► Research program based on operationalizing the Commons [+]

The Commons approach makes it possible to place users and beneficiaries at the center of regulation and management processes. It is meaningful for a development agency. However, as the Commons refer more to a process than to categories of goods or services, reflection over “AFD and the Commons” needs to be clarified, as it may involve extremely varied sectors and operating methods. AFD has many examples of operational projects and thematic research projects that feed into reflection on the subject:
  • On “traditional activities” and “Commons-natural resources” (water resources, fisheries resources, pastureland, forests, land tenure) or “community management” (Users’ Associations in rural or peri-urban areas);
  • On issues integrated more recently into AFD’s mandates: health, education, climate change;
  • On emerging themes which should be integrated into development issues: information and data Commons, the role of institutions in development (Governance mandate).

Today, the Commons provide a way of renewing our vision of development, with three possible levels in terms of positioning: not to undermine the traditional Commons, support and strengthen existing dynamics, bring out new Commons. They raise the issue of coordination with the States (sovereign and sub-sovereign levels) and non-sovereign entities (State-owned and private companies) which it is mandated to work with. It would appear necessary to deepen reflection on the notion of general interest and the role of States in the management of the Commons, the issue of representativeness (representative democracy or direct democracy) and, more generally, the issue of the legitimacy of actors involved in the management of a common good, the specific characteristics of common services (which question the capacity of communities to produce and manage the service) and global Commons (where there is an accumulation of rules).

AFD has set up a crosscutting process of reflection on these subjects, involving research and operational officers. It calls on academics from all disciplines, as well as consultants and politicians, with the aim of building a common knowledge and understanding of the operationalization of the Commons for a development assistance agency. To what extent do the Commons renew our understanding of contexts, and our support for the public policies and projects we finance?

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Last update in April 2016

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