Research on the commons

From research we’ve conducted since 2015, we can observe how commons-related dynamics related to land tenure, health care, drinking water, the collaborative economy, and other issues are at work in various fields of AFD action. This research poses questions about two closely linked issues: public action (as seen by the involvement of users and citizens) and exclusive ownership (as seen by the development of shared rights). AFD has an original positioning on this theme within the donor community, as can be seen through our studies.
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Research on the Commons, AFD
of the world’s natural resources are jointly managed
30 million
the number of articles available on Wikipedia, the largest digital commons, visited each month by nearly 500 million people
  • Dynamics of the commons

    Our research on the commons observe how commons affect the various areas of AFD actions, such as rural and urban land tenure, natural resource management, health care, mobility, access to water and energy, and irrigation. Forms of governance specific to each context can be seen through these experiences of commons. They come into being when communities organize themselves to deal with material or immaterial resources. These communities develop ad hoc rules based on a shared objective and then establish a governance structure to ensure compliance with those rules. 

    The research highlights a wide variety of commons, distinguished by:

    • The goal they share: preservation of natural resources, establishment and management of public services, and knowledge sharing through collaborative digital platforms.
    • How they emerge: commons organized to share land and natural resources, for example, can be local initiatives to resolve conflicts or align conflicting interests. But some research shows that State intervention may be necessary to encourage users to organize themselves to ensure the reproduction of the resource they depend on.
    • The way in which they partner with or even become a hybrid form of public authority: many case studies on commons highlight the importance of a partnership approach. In this way, the State does not simply consult or involve stakeholders in a more or less effective way: it co-constructs assessments, objectives, and solutions for hybrid and original systems of governance. The question of the sustainability of institutional and organizational arrangements is at the heart of the issue.
    Watch the video "Supporting the potential of the commons in Africa" (English subtitles available):

  • Commons, public action, and exclusive ownership

    Our research looks at the commons from a completely different perspective, by considering them not as objects but as a lens for better comprehension. This helps to expand our reflection on public action and to redefine the role of users and citizens.

    Based on concrete experiences using a North/South comparative approach, the research calls on various disciplines such as political science, history, sociology, and economics. It examines the notions of participation, citizenship, democracy, and sovereignty. Additionally, it highlights models in which communities of citizens have the possibility of providing services (which are no longer based solely on the public sector and its variants). In these models, we can observe experiments in renewed forms of exercises in direct democracy. At the same time, the research carried out examines alternatives to exclusive ownership rights through the development of shared rights and usage rights. 

    The example of land-based commons in the Senegal River Valley:

    The law of the commons differs from the State-based Western legal tradition, which is centered on individual rights. Instead, it’s based on a corpus of rights that may be formal or informal, written or oral, but nonetheless socialized and developed by a given community to meet its needs. The community is understood to enjoy what is known as a “bundle of rights,” a notion already utilized on land-tenure issues. It’s also an interesting angle in the case of information resources, with which intellectual property rights are associated. Our research highlights experiments in the fields of health care and nutrition, where differentiated legal tools are developed outside the exclusive or strictly commercial nature of intellectual property.

    Watch the replay: What public policies for the commons?


  • Entrepreneurship in common

    Forms of entrepreneurship in common are coming into being. They borrow some practices from commercial enterprises, but with special features in both their legal arrangement and in the economic models that serve as their basis. This research takes on a North-South cross-cutting approach, focusing on the following: 

    • Rethinking commercial enterprises in the light of the commons, by analyzing them from the angle of the bundles of rights that form them. Research shows that a distinction must be made between “the enterprise as commons” and systems that can contribute to putting “the enterprise at the service of the common good.” Moreover, beyond the commons that are “limited” and that serve predetermined and “closed” communities, some commons are in contact with different forms or expressions of the general interest.
    • Working on viable business models for the commons, on which new players in the collaborative or commons economy can base their activities. Research shows that these are fragile models, often based on unpaid voluntary work or on self-entrepreneurship. However, these models may be more or less in tune with the market. 
    • Recognizing and promoting products and services delivered by the commons, which are not designed primarily for the market but to provide a social or environmental usefulness. Our research highlights the role of local authorities and States vis-à-vis the commons, as well as the diversity of the possible ways in which they can contribute to the latter. 
    • Reflecting on remuneration for “commoners”: research shows that this question does not elicit uniform reactions and indicates that the original forms emerging to reconcile absence of subordination and forms of guaranteed existence remain fragile. 
    • Understanding the role of digital commons, how common platforms differ from traditional platforms and act as a way for the new generation to self-train and actively enter the digital world.

  • Global common goods

    At a more macro level, the research carried out makes it possible to qualify AFD’s original positioning on the commons. AFD has focused on the notion of global commons since the implementation of its 4th Strategic Guidelines. This notion rounds out the legacy of global public goods (GPGs), a unifying notion of official development assistance since the 2000s.

    Like global public goods, global common goods put emphasis on humanity united as one, the affirmation of common values, and the urgency of preserving resources (whether natural or not).

    On the other hand, while global public goods rely on States and international development cooperation to establish regulatory and economic tools that are binding on all actors, global common goods rely on the dynamics of local stakeholders who take charge of “actionable” environmental and social concerns. Like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), commons thus play out according to the scales and levels of actors and their complementarity.

    Furthermore, global common goods are a philosophical principle that places the strengthening of social ties and environmental sustainability at the heart of governance issues. As such, they consider the economy to be “embedded” in ecology and social issues. 

    Finally, global common goods are concerned with deconstructing the notion of exclusive ownership and with determining the rights to be protected and the agreements to be made along these lines among the stakeholders (who include users, private players, public players, and citizens).

  • Operationalization of commons

    Our research as a whole highlights the potential of the commons and the approaches they offer to AFD in fulfilling its objectives. Some of the research compares the findings with AFD Group’s financial operations. 

    Looking at the operationalization of commons, we’ve come to not consider them as ideal and unique models to be applied at all costs. Rather, the commons approach provides a conceptual framework for: 

    • Taking a fresh look at local social dynamics and supporting transitions along with all stakeholders.
    • Thinking about property rights outside of exclusive individual ownership.
    • Focusing on chosen transitions and transformative processes as much as on achieving end results. 

    This approach can in no way become normative and can only be applied in ad hoc fashion, according to the contexts and the desires of the partners. 

    Read alsoThe commons. A new framework for development policies in Africa?


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