Endurance woman

At the event of International Women's Day, I would like to pay tribute to another woman I adore in the field of Economics: Elinor Ostrom - the first and (till now) only female Nobel recipient in economics.

The longer I stayed in academia, the larger respect I give to people who are simple. What comes from within is what keeps me excited. Ostrom is no exception. She looks like any other woman yet her contribution was beyond substantial. Ostrom worked till the last breath (a life I would love to have a similar life for myself). Her Hayek Lecture is delivered 11 weeks before her death. On the day of her death, she published her last article on Project Syndicate "Green from the Grassroots". Ostrom taught in Indiana University where I earned my master degree. Well, very wish I could make Bloomington proud one day!

During the span of one's life, she studies management practices on common-pool resources. Ostrom researches derived from the classic Tragedy of the Commons developed by Garrett Hardin in 1968. Hardin argued that shared resources are depleted by self-interested users. Common goods, therefore, should be either managed by the government or privates stipulated by property rights.

“Picture a pasture that is open to all. Each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons…the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.”

Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons 1968

Ostrom provided an alternative to avoid Tragedy of the commons. Decades of research show a variety of overlapping policies at city, subnational, national, and international levels is more likely to succeed than are single, overarching binding agreements (Ostrom, 2012).

She argued that the state would be too big to manage small and medium common resources. State is not given adequate information and financial incentives to manage local common goods without corruption. A poly-centric management approach should be utilized. This is where systems exist at multiple levels, with some autonomy at each level.

State should provide general information, assist local levels during the enforcement process such as conflict resolution, monitor the performance to cope with larger scale resources. At the same time, micro-situational agency need ample leeway to practice its power and allow to own the resources. There is not a correct way to manage resources effectively. The practices vary from cultures to cultures as well as different physical conditions of various ecology systems.

So generally, what attribute towards a more sustainable solution to avoid Tragedy of commons: Trust. The trust can built given the following 8 design principles (Stein Holden and Mesfin Tilahun, 2018):

"The attributes of the users that are conducive to their self-organising and managing a resource sustainably include that the users ask questions and that they view the resource as highly salient. They then usually have a relatively low discount rate in terms of the benefits obtained from the resource so that they are not over-exploiting the resource in the current time period. Over time, the users have developed high levels of trust and reciprocity and have the autonomy to determine at least some of their own rules. They are nested in complementary, multiple-tier systems. Usually in these kinds of settings, those organising the system have prior organisational experience; they have well-developed social capital and they have local leaders who are able to take on that very tough job. They also share some common understanding about the resource. These are the attributes that we are finding in systems that are sustainable."

Ostrom, Hayek Lecture, 2012

The underlying messages throughout her studies is: "Complex problems need complex solutions. Instead of rejecting the complexity, one should find a way to deal with it". The spirit of her message also shown in her enduring research process. Given the lack of theoretical backups, Ostrom had to collected large case studies in the world from Nigeria, Nepal, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Bolivia, Australia, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Switzerland and Sweden within the long period of time to test the model's effectiveness. The endurance also shown as she continued working against cancer until the last breath. Isn't it very woman? Endurance. And I strive to learn from the greatest.


1. Elinor Ostrom (2012) ,Hayek Lecture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xta1vPkSjk4&t=159s

2. Stein Holden and Mesfin Tilahun (2018), The importance of Ostrom's Design principles, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0305750X17303728

3. Nicholas Amendolare, What is the tragedy of the commons?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxC161GvMPc

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