Sometime in the mid-1990s, during the initial heyday of expansion in Zimbabwe's CAMPFIRE Programme, I took part in a review meeting on its origins and progress, attended by many who had been involved in its inception. Regarding its conceptual origins, one scholar-practitioner remarked that Common Property Theory had played no role in its origins; CAMPFIRE was a Zimbabwean response to Zimbabwean problems, shaped by Zimbabwean analyses.  The remark was made out of ignorance, not malice, but it was nevertheless symptomatic of the gulf that has existed for too long between the world of professional scholars and planners who shape policy in the abstract and those who modify and implement policy in the grounded reality where they live and work, not only on Zimbabwe but around the world.

The scholarship of the American Elinor Ostrom, who died in June of this year at the age of 78, was a significant bridge over this gap. Together with her professorial colleague and husband, Vincent Ostrom, she founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University in 1973.  Drawing on a paradigm of multi-layered resource management, the Workshop from its inception emphasised the centrality of the incentives of those who live with and directly use natural resources. Contrary to the conventional view of the time held by scientific and bureaucratic establishments that the use of these resources could only effectively be regulated by state or private bureaucracies, the Workshop took the stance that in certain contexts land users and occupiers could effectively and sustainably manage shared resources within defined commonages.    

These insights - the importance of the resource commonage, the potential of users to evolve effective management regimes, and the importance of incentives to sustainability - found a resonance with the experience of those directly involved in rural livelihoods but who at times found difficulty in analysing and articulating the detail of the reality with which they dealt. Ostrom gave these perspectives a rigorous scientific examination, scrutinizing a broad spectrum of common property regimes from around the world and laying out a set of principles underlying successful common property management. These principles were set out in her seminal 1990 book, Governing the Commons, as "design principles", which many practitioners had been using without being aware of their summation in Ostrom's book. This did not bother her, since the book never sought to be a how-to-do-it manual but rather a re-inforcive analysis to be applied flexibly to the infinite number of contexts of which the author was aware. The book is, in effect, a charter for the advocacy of collective common property management.  It was this 1990 book which the Nobel committee cited as her primary contribution to economics when awarding her the Nobel Prize in 2009. She was the first and only woman to have received the Nobel Prize in Economics.

As collective communal regimes for the management of common property have gained formal recognition over the past two decades, so too have the obstacles, internal and external, become more apparent. Ostrom's 2005 book, Understanding Institutional Diversity, provides valuable insights in this arena. Ostrom has also addressed the critical issue of making approaches to management analysis more inclusive and less fragmented, a topic explored in her 2010 book, Working Together: Collective Action, the commons and Multiple Methods in Practice.  

Elinor Ostrom leaves to all those concerned with sustainability a vast and valuable legacy. Her scholarship over the years has provided an international intellectual legitimacy to a perspective once superciliously considered in academic circles as a romanticised populism. The extensive comparative data assembled by her and the Workshop constitutes a valuable archive of continued salience. And the pervasive humanity of her scholarship should continue to act as an inspiration to us all.

Marshall W. Murphree was the first Chair of the Sustainable Use Specialist Group of IUCN/SSC, created in the aftermath of the 1994 Buenos Aires IUCN General Assembly, and retired Professor at the Centre for Applied Social Sciences, University of Zimbabwe.

Photo: Elinor Ostrom lecturing at Indiana University. Credit: Indiana University.