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An uncommon revolutionary: Why Elinor Ostrom holds the answers for our times
Simon Kaye, Senior Policy Researcher, NLGN, 15 November, 2019

There are places in the world where self-governance simply works. In Nepal, communities of farmers set aside their individual interests to manage even their single most precious resource without any outside management at all. They mobilise, organise and distribute without the rule of the state or the pressure of markets. In doing so, they are contradicting how most economists and politicians tell us people will behave, providing a tantalising insight into how our own society might be reimagined.

Irrigation is serious business in Nepal. Food and crop production represents the livelihood of at least four out of every five Nepali citizens, but only about a fifth of Nepal’s land is naturally cultivable. Rice growing, which dominates Nepal’s economy, is particularly dependent on a plentiful water supply – a supply which is further threatened by climate change and unpredictable weather. This means that irrigation systems are crucial.

But irrigation is also staggeringly difficult to govern. The usual ‘solution’, particularly in the Global South, is for centralised state management of water resources to ensure that the lucky farmers living in damper parts don’t prevent water from getting all the way to the ‘tail end’, where agriculture would be impossible without such redistribution, and to guarantee that the entire system is maintained and kept efficient.

In Nepal, however, much of the irrigation takes place within 100% farmer-managed systems. This means that it is the farmers themselves who must manage and maintain the entire system. The lucky farmers nearest to the water sources resist the urge to take advantage of their privileged position in order to sustain the agriculture of potential competitors. And all the farmers must contribute maintenance, no matter how much they individually benefit from it.

Traditional, mainstream economics would tell us that this approach is impossible. There are just too many opportunities for selfishness to take over, for individuals to ‘defect’ from any deal that does get made. That’s why private companies or top-down state management would usually be expected to step in.

Nepal’s farmers, however, show that such self-governance is possible. In fact, according to the research of Nobel Prize-winning political economist Elinor Ostrom, the farmer-managed systems usually outperform comparable externally-managed irrigation systems: the community, against every usual expectation, does a better job of it.

In this way, what classical economics tell us can’t be done; real-world examples tell us happens every day. As Ostrom put it, a system that “works in practice can work in theory”. She assembled a tremendous body of empirical work to put the practical side beyond doubt, and then devoted her efforts to working on new theories to help explain what she was observing in the real world. Those theories carry profound implications for the emergence of self-governance in all sorts of contexts – including here in the UK.

There’s a quiet revolution underway in our local communities. Groups of citizens are addressing the gaps in their public services, having new ideas about making their neighbourhoods better. They’re not just passively waiting for the state to provide solutions or transacting with a private company to make the difference. They’re taking control of resources and spaces, setting up utilities, commissioning services tailored to their needs.

NLGN is working to empower communities in this bid to take back control with our overarching Community Paradigm agenda, and our latest project is an investigation into the research and insights of Elinor Ostrom. We think that ‘Ostronomics’ holds a lot of lessons for the crucial agenda of community empowerment and public service reform in the UK. We want to draw her insights out for an audience beyond academia, where it can inspire the next wave of self-governing communities.

We’re also working with some incredible partners on this project. Power to Change are helping to drive the rise of community business in the UK, which will be a great source of case studies for our work on Ostrom and the Community Paradigm. We’re also joining forces with the academics at the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society (CSGS) at King’s College London, since tackling the enormous literature surrounding Ostrom’s work is no small undertaking.

Our main report on Ostrom is planned for publication in the first half of 2020. I’ll be writing regular blogs on what we discover along the way – as I delve into the work of this revolutionary economist. If you’re interested in hearing more, pop me an email at skaye@nlgn.org.uk.