Day #44 – July 14, 2019

Protecting ‘the commons’ through informal governance systems: acknowledging the power of local knowledge.

By A. Kusi-Appiah, 2019 Queen Elizabeth Scholar,  Carleton University


Local people everywhere have expert knowledge about their environment and resources therein, and they are also the sole custodians of sound practices that can protect common environmental resources. It is therefore imperative that we quit paying lip service to them. Using water access for making ‘kachasu’ (local gin) as an example of prudent and sound management practice, this paper highlights some of the ways in which local business women use and preserve water in Chibavi, a periurban settlement in the City of Mzuzu, Malawi.

*Key words:*
the Commons / tragedy of the commons /
governing the commons / local knowledge

  1. Introduction:

In many informal settlement settings, a vast majority of the people do not have access to formal water networks which is usually operated by municipal governments. However, even though they may be located outside of the formal network, local people are able to commandeer common resources such as water for household and business activities through their own informal networks made possible by the use of their own social capital (Bourdieu, 1977). The literature on water access in periurban environments hardly address informal sources of water access; rather, it concentrates mainly on formal government provision of pipe borne water and water taxation issues as dictated by neoliberalism, the leading paradigm guiding international development policy today, with its emphasis on the market as the sole allocator of common resources (Hay, 2004; Harvey, 2005).

Such principles promote the idea of an economically motivated, rational individual who exchanges based on profits as the foundation for society (Griffin, 2007; Larner, 2000). This politico-economic and ideological discourse, mainly favoured by neocolonial entities with an interest in the control of resource allocation processes around the globe, especially those of the developing world, subtly but effectively disregard local knowledge in favour of western knowledge which hinges on the enlightenment project of continuous progress fuelled by the indiscriminate use of local resources. The inherent assumption of neoliberalism excludes behaviours based on other types of motivation such as altruism, collectivist strategies, empathy for others, love, reciprocity and care (Ferber and Nelson, 2003). More than a set of policies, neoliberalism shifts public perceptions about citizen entitlements, government efficiency, and the collective provision of social needs (Hay, 2004; Bezner and Mkandawire,  2012; Larner, 2000). In this formulation governments are encouraged to focus on economic efficiency and international competitiveness, initially through  *’rolling back’ the state, and increasingly through market provision of services and targeted interventions around social issues such as crime* (Peck and Tickell, 2002; Saad-Filho and Johnston, 2005).

But water governance is not only about institutions and processes and the market, it is also about local knowledge and how marginalized people use the local knowledge at their disposal to manage and safeguard the continued availability of common resources within their environment. As Ahenakaw (2013) eloquently explains in “Beyond Epostemic Provincialism”, indigenous people all around the world have knowledge about their environments, and this knowledge is based on the knowledge of the natural world around them. According to Ahenakaw (2013):

“Moral expectations and aspirations are determined *not by normative knowledge, legislation and regulations prescribing protocols and practices*,  but rather an unbounded awareness of the connectedness of all things…..All things are interconnected to the point where modernity/colonial conceptions of being, knowledge, morality, politics and economy become infused, inseparable and simultaneous. In this context, object/subject dichotomies become redundant, only subject-subject relationships remains: I am the river, and the river is me.”

(Ahenakaw et al., 2014)

The tendency for some scholars and other commentators to regard local people as squanderers rather than preservers of common resources was articulated by Garrett Hardin (1968) in his book: “Tragedy of the Commons”. Hardin refers to the tendency of people who have access to a *common shared resource*, a resource which is not specifically and personally their own, to squander it rather than preserve and improve it (Hardin, 1968). Eventually, this public resource is destroyed and lost to all. An example of this phenomenon is familiar to landlords. People who rent tend to abuse their accommodations in ways owners would not, because they don’t see a personal advantage to caretaking. After all, they reason that the cost of maintenance and upgrades are borne by the landlord (they forget that they pay for that cost in their rent).


An interesting dynamic in examining the informal sector is that most of the operations in local communities is predicated on informal networks and knowledge. The informal sector is therefore a lens for understanding of urban resource governance of all common resources including water. It is about the social organization of water supply and the ways in which local people use local knowledge to manage common resources. It is also about stakeholder conflict in the informal sector.

  1. Hardin, not so fast

*”Governing the commons”* was Elinor Ostrom’s response to Garrett Hardin’s *Tragedy of the Conmons*.

She posits that even though this could happen, it is very rare and *local people* do organize to manage the commons very well.

It is true that in history common resource systems have been known to collapse due to overuse (e.g. over fishing, overexploitation of forests, etc.), but many examples exist where members of a community with access to a common resource cooperate or regulate to exploit those resources prudently without collapse.

Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for demonstrating this concept in her book *Governing the Commons* which included examples of how local communities were able to do this without top-down regulations.

  1. Local people also have knowledge, but it may not be ‘formal’:

Ostrom was essentially referring to *the informal ways in which local people organize to use community resources based in their own social norms*.

In the 21st century, you do find organizations dedicated to protecting common assets, and people who have dedicated their lives to such goals. These organizations have ‘formalized’ local knowledge in the west, and use them as their main principles for ‘managing’ environments. For example:

*Greenpeace is dedicated to preserving the life of the oceans, especially whales.*

*The Sierra Club tries to protect forests. National parks are developed for the express purpose of making those resources available to the public in a manner which preserves and protects them.*

In general we can say that common shared resources represent a cost for upkeep that is born indirectly by everyone who has access to that resource, and that a wise user will take care of it. As the saying goes for nature enthusiasts, “Pack out what you pack in.”

  1. Pay attention to local knowledge:

It is therefore imperative to pay particular attention to local traditional knowledge when dealing with local people in issues of resource access, use and governance.

To be continued……