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No panaceas for problems plaguing common property resources, says Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom

V. Sridhar
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Urges policy specialists to adopt “polycentric approaches to problems of development”

Elinor Ostrom
Elinor Ostrom

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 Elinor Ostrom has cautioned that there are “no panaceas” for problems plaguing common property resources across the world.

Dr. Ostrom urged policy specialists to adopt “polycentric approaches to problems of development.” Although research showed that local communities governed resources sustainably for a long time — in some cases 500 to 1,000 years ago — resource management by communities was not the answer in all situations.

“My fundamental message is that there are no panaceas for the many problems we face,” she said.

Dr. Ostrom was addressing a media conference on the sidelines of the 13th Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons here on Wednesday.

Drawing parallels with developments in medical science in the course of the last century, she said the study of the governance of common property resources also needed to develop into a “diagnostic science.”

The study of problems relating to governance of the commons needed to adopt principles of modern medicine, which had evolved into the study of the human body as a complex system involving the interplay of several variables.

Climate change

Asked about the relevance of her work to the problems posed by climate change, she said the “huge risks” posed by climate change could only be addressed by “adopting a polycentric approach.”

“We cannot be twiddling our thumbs, waiting for an international agreement to address the problems posed by climate change.”

Call to media

Dr. Ostrom urged the media to “change its tone” while reporting on negotiations that often ended in failure.

“Instead of focussing on discouraging news of failure, it might be more useful to highlight cases of individuals and small communities that have taken steps to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases,” the Nobel laureate said. “Information can also influence human behaviour.”

Corruption an issue

Commenting on programmes that seek to compensate for emissions that arise from deforestation, she said,

“The threat of substituting indigenous forests by planted varieties is great.” “The possibility of corruption in such programmes is also very high,” she warned. The benefits supposedly arising out of mitigation projects were often dubious. “I am particularly nervous about huge amounts of money going into such projects.”

Asked what could be her recommendations to influence policies in favour of forest communities, she said, “What I would suggest would depend on the kind of illness, there are no panaceas.”

Gandhiji's relevance

History and philosophy had much to contribute to the study of the commons. Mahatma Gandhi's views on consumerism were “extremely relevant” in the context of climate change.

“The market economy, which encourages consumption for consumption's sake, is a key source of our contemporary problems,” she said.

There was need to use a diverse set of indicators to measure development, not just the Gross Domestic Product. Indicators on the quality of education and health should to be integrated into measures of development, she noted.


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