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This article is part of our free participatory development course for local nonprofits


Rescuing the Commons as a Place for True Community Participation

October 2017

Tobias Roberts

The Cold War ended almost two decades ago, yet the dichotomy between State and Market continues to be all-encompassing. In traditional right/left politics, the choices offered to the common person present basically two options: vote for a party that promises to bolster free trade, freedom for businesses to “create” job opportunities, and deregulation of markets, or vote for a party dedicated to strengthening the state and its ability to control the economic and social realities of a country.

Lost within this rhetoric of state versus market lies an alternative wherein communities come together to control and manage resources and relationships without dependence on the Market/State dichotomy. The commons has long been one of the most important social systems that has promoted the long-term care and management of resources from a community perspective. The actual process of the management of the commons has strengthened community identity (sorely lacking in the Market/State dichotomy which essentially makes community irrelevant) and a set of shared of values that bolster community coherence. 

This module will look at the importance of the concept of the Commons as a place in between the State and the Market where communities can truly participate in the construction of their own realities. We believe that fostering good governance of the Commons is the best way to promote true community participation.

What is the Commons?

Most people in the Industrialized, so-called First World Nations, live lives that are completely separated from any sort of direct participation in the management and protection of the natural resources they depend on. One of the defining aspects of the West’s increasingly urbanized, tech-driven, industrialized society is that we freely relinquish any kind of direct participation in the necessities of our survival. The distance between producer and consumer is such that most of us have no idea where the food we eat comes from, how the soil that produces our food is managed, how the water that flows into our faucets is protected, etc.

The globalization of this type of economy and social organization is antithetical to what the commons attempts to promote. David Bollier is an author who has written several books on the subject of the commons. According to him, the Commons is “a self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State…A sector of the economy (and life!) that generates value in ways that are often taken for granted – and often jeopardized by the Market-State.”

One type of commons that is increasingly recognized and valued in our modern-day world is related to the free software movement and certain areas of the Internet. To name just one famous example, Wikipedia is essentially a “commons encyclopedia”, managed collectively by a group of people for the good of the wider community. The same values and ethics behind these types of electronic commons are what have guided rural and indigenous communities for thousands of years in the management of their territories, natural resources, and other aspects of their livelihood.

Why are the Commons Important for Community Participation in Development Projects?

In many ways, NGO´s are often an extension of either the State or Market dichotomy. Recently, a community in El Salvador just outside of the capital city was facing water shortages due to an interruption of the government provided water service. The community staged a protest and a local news agency showed up to cover the situation.

The reporter interviewed three people in the community who were protesting for lack of water. One of the women leaders demanded that the government come and fix the situation because water is a human right and the community needed water. The next person interviewed added that if the government was unable to provide water to communities, then they should privatize the water industry (a current proposal by the right wing parties of the country) so that business could provide water to communities. Finally, a third person interviewed mentioned that the community would be grateful for any NGO that came to set up an independent water system for the community.

While it is inarguable that water is a human right that governments should actively attempt to protect, it is interesting that no one in the community mentioned that the community should have the responsibility to administer, manage, protect, and govern their own water resources. If the State and private sector were unable to provide, then NGO´s were seen as another resource to supply needs, though always as a provider; a sort of third-arm of the State/Market dichotomy.

Bollier goes on to explain that the commons “is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values and norms devised by the community to manage its resources…There is no commons without commoning – the social practices and norms for managing a resource for collective benefit...The commons must be understood, then, as a verb as much as a noun.  A commons must be animated by bottom-up participation, personal responsibility, transparency and self-policing accountability.”

In an ideal world, communities would come together to take control of the territories and the resources that sustain their livelihoods. The practice of “communing”, or collectively agreeing upon the norms, standards, and rubrics of who can use a resource and in what ways, would create a positive feedback loop wherein the defense of the commons only further strengthened community organization and autonomy.

The reality, however, is that many communities around the world, through the history of colonization, as well as the disenfranchisement and marginalization that stems from the inequalities inherent in globalization, have abandoned practices of managing the commons.

NGO´s then, would do well to encourage and motivate communities to re-create a sense of the commons through the development projects that take place in their communities. There is no “inventory” of what can and cannot be considered a commons. Rather, whenever communities come together and decide that a resource needs to be governed collectively for the common good, a commons can be born and communities can truly participate in recovering a sense of autonomy and independence.

Questions for Reflection

  • What types of commons do you see in the modern-day world?

  • Do you think that the management of the Commons is a good way to spur community participation?

  • How could you encourage a community to go beyond the Market/State dichotomy to take back control over the resources necessary for their well-being?

About the Author

Tobias has worked with a variety of community development organizations throughout Central America during the past 11 years. He currently works as a freelance consultant and writer while also managing his family´s agroecology farm in El Salvador and participating in a community eco-tourism cooperative.

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