Tag Archives: Ostrom

From Decentralised to Polycentralised Systems

The theory of decentralisation has recently, especially in developing countries, been considered as THE solution to all problems. The question however is, what is actually real decentralisation? Is it a mere shifting of central power to smaller, still central authorities?

This is how it is mostly practised and that is why it was not able to deliver the expected results. We are still moving in the same lines of top-down governance; we are shifting the power vertically, instead of horizontally.

The actual process of decentralisation was not able to devolve the power of decision, the planning and implementation into the hands of the people. The community who owns the resources is not empowered to manage them. As long as outsiders tell me what they think is best for me, what crop I should grow and what food I should eat, you will not be happy with it and will probably not do it in the proper way.

The question that remains is: How do people manage to organise themselves in such a way that they can create systems and institutions that enable them to manage their resources and concern sustainably? How can they move from their individual interests and their limited individual knowledge to community interests and enhanced group knowledge?

If somebody has been preparing your food for many years, you may not be able to get it done yourself when this person is gone. That is why a lot of villages and a lot of individuals are in desperate situations. They are not able to rely on themselves when it comes to the most substantial things. Proper communication and cooperation within the communities has been interrupted – while everybody is complaining about why the government is not getting anything done.

Two years back, Elinor Ostrom, 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economics, gave a speech on her theory of governing the commons at the University of Technology in Berlin: “Why are we waiting for governments to come up with solutions. We, the people, know what to do, let s get together and change the situations we re in.” Elinor Ostrom has a clear idea of what the organisation of communities will look like. There is not one solution for a hundred situations, there is a complex combination of a variety of solutions to every situation; which in larger systems will be called polycentric systems.

Following is a part of my diploma thesis, which you can fully download here, explaining the idea of polycentric systems.

Central to Elinor Ostrom’s understanding of organising larger groups of individuals using the same resource is the concept of polycentric systems. It is based on the idea of a downward directed accountability, shifting administrative as well as production power from a small number of individuals over to the communities. These communities will have to be organised, or find means to organise themselves in order to build and strengthen institutions and organisations on differing scales, boosting the flow of information and creating a high number of units with a considerable amount of authority. The organisations shall be able to make and enforce rules in their particular domain of activity. While the highly acclaimed decentralisation mostly remains characterised by a hierarchical organisation of decision-making, with national governments remaining the centre of authority, polycentric systems promote an allocation of responsibilities and as a result enhance mutual monitoring within a community. (Ostrom 1993) This in turn, properly performed, will strengthen confidence, self-determination and trust within a mobilised group of individuals who take on their own matters of concern.

Ostrom (2005) notes that community-based or participatory development, increasingly practised by NGOs in developing countries and promoted by governments, is mostly aiming at the organisation of a great number of groups at the same level. If, after implementation is completed, the NGO that provided staff assistance and external resources is about to leave, these organisations are in many cases not able to cope with major comprehensive conflicts. Complex polycentric systems organised on differing levels of governance can more easily adapt to external changes while the risk of total failure for an entire region is drastically reduced. Failing small systems can call upon larger systems and vice versa. The organisations operating in these systems are a mixture of voluntary agencies, NGOs, private associations, governmental departments and cooperatives, compromising overlapping units, so that information about local conditions, policy experiments and activities can easily be exchanged. In such a situation, major conflicts between the multiple interdependent units may arise. These conflicts may, on the one hand, lead to coordination problems and negative processes, on the other hand, however, generate more information enabling participants to solve challenging problems and further the community’s development. (Ostrom 2005)

Autonomous communities organising themselves in order to sustainably manage their natural resources have the advantage that they can more effectively learn from experimentation than a central authority. They have the local knowledge about the biophysical system that they are living in and know the culture and norms of behaviour common to their region. Creating their own rules, they can build up trustworthy relationships based on reciprocity and notably decrease the monitoring costs through mutual understanding and monitoring. The users of the common resource themselves know best what changes occur in their environment and when they have to adopt their rules. (Ostrom 2005)