Nobel laureate ELINOR OSTROM is a distinguished professor and recipient of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2009. Ostrom is also an Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science, and Senior Research Director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University, Bloomington; and Founding Director, Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, Arizona State University. Prof Ostrom, who has visited Nepal several times in the past, studied Nepal’s community managed forests and irrigation systems. She won several international awards and recognitions for her work. She was recently in Nepal at the invitation of the government and the Asia Foundation after becoming the Nobel laureate. At the end of her four-day visit, she interacted with media persons. Her views are compiled here by KESHAB POUDEL:
How do you like Nepal and what inspired you here?
I have learned from everyday life of people of the whole world that the millions of human innovations and influences did not happen just in government offices. Such things are everywhere. I went to the hills of Nepal and learned something from the farmers. Similarly, I learned innovations from other parts of the world. Every society has its own ways to go about innovation. Local farmers have their own systems and knowledge. What we really need to understand is that ingenuity and ability are everywhere.
What role the media need to play in a society like ours?
Media really need to be fair and free. They should not report the misdoings of one party against the other. Only after that reporting can be more real. The press will be very important in the whole process of political transformation in Nepal.
As Nepal is in the process of constitution writing, what is your observation?
In terms of new constitution writing, one of the things I am encouraged is that you have courts that are open to all and intensive discussions are going on. You have free media and strong community.
What is the most important thing that should be in our constitution?Right to make peaceful protests should be protected by your constitution. This is very important in all democratic constitutions. I don’t know whether it will be protected or not. However, you need to develop peaceful protest mechanisms. Sometimes, protests in the street are important, to show solidarity. But the differences are whether the protest marchers are peaceful or violent. Don’t go for temptation other than to go for peaceful demonstration.
How do you view Nobel laureate Ostrom’s visit to Nepal in place of a researcher Ostrom’s?
Well, this is not like my normal visit. It is wonderful. I met many people here in Kathmandu. I am learning about what is happening a bit. I am uncomfortable sometimes when people turned to me for “the” answer. You heard me repeatedly come back from providing “the” answer.
Why do people want “the” answer?
That is probably due to misunderstanding about science. We have a sense that science has the answer. Knowledge is not just about an answer, it is about knowledge itself or about the processes. Sometimes complex processes are interactive and you need to know about the processes are different before you can judge what is happening. If you ask me about the state of community governed forest work, I refused to answer that. There are many instances of failure of community forests. You need to go for a long history and process. Then I can answer. Not when people want to have ‘the’ answer for the problems.
At the time you are visiting Nepal, the government has decided to forward a bill to amend the Forest Act intending to reduce the role of community and Nepal Electricity authority has already scraped a Community Electricity Division to stop participation of the community in the electricity distribution, how do you look at these developments?Even our research showed that when communities have real rights to organize and responsibility to work, they are able frequently to manage forests and irrigation systems very effectively. There are lots of evidences in support. If I were a Nepali and I was talking to the persons involved in that, I would urge them not to do that. Of course, there is no right without responsibility.
The government has been giving the reason that the community forest systems have many loopholes and they need the amendment to manage them well?
It does not mean every time a forest or a water system managed by community is always positive. It does not mean that all are bad either. There is the need to have a balance. We have seen in irrigation systems of 250 cases. There we found real statistical differences of the farmer managed irrigation systems outperforming, the government managed and agency managed systems, that is what we found.
What role did your research in Nepal play for your Nobel Prize?
(Laugh …) I have no idea. I don’t know that be pegged. I have no evidence. They indicated my research on the comments.
How has it changed your life, that you received the first call, that you received the Noble Prize in economics?
I am very appreciative of the honor and it is a great honor. After this, everything has changed. I am turning down 15 invitations every week now. I am faster in the email than I was earlier. The work is really tight.
How do you perceive the new challenges in the community managed systems where political interventions have led to lack of proper community participation?
I am not in the field recently. In earlier junctures, some irrigation systems, which were community managed, had a vocal role and they acted very strongly. Party politics never entered in the debates. When they were debating about how many hours they needed to disband the water during the repairing time and any of the huge numbers of questions they said were deeply held norms. There is no influence of national politics.
Do you mean communities do not want political interventions in community managed works?
They always said that the party politics has nothing to do with how to manage irrigation systems better. They opposed the discussions on the basis of politics. You do think about the business. If any of you are in the corporation, you need to do compromise. I am not denying the importance of the political parties but that has to do with much broader issues of governance and the feeling is that we have the elections and have judicial system which is fair and people like too.
Are all problems solved by the local community?
Some local problems are not workable. If you get into more general local community, it is very hard to see politics deterring out. If there are issues like how much money one is going to spend on education and the tax one need to pay. Even if one does not allow national politics, there may be green or brown groups at local level. There are divisions. Parties are organizing in some of the division but they are always national. It is very tricky and important.
As you are aware that Nepal is in the process of constitution writing, political parties agreed to follow a mixed economy with public, private and cooperative participation. Do you think such a model is good for Nepal?
I cannot address that, as one against the others. Among a variety of property systems that land is one. Land is frequently well held in private, not necessarily pasture land and forest land. Urban land is quite different. One needs to be very concerned about how we need to increase the knowledge about the urban land and cost the transactions as low as we can.
What is the critical tragedy of Nepalese economy?
That many people in Nepal think is a tragedy. However, you have a tradition that is rich but it is not a hundred percent shield. We look at failure in a way that is a community failure. It is terrible. In terms of modern economic development and a new private firm, it is something like third of all private firms which are established do not survive their first five years. They are failures or one thirds fail. Does that mean, they are all falling? We don’t pick on that and that is one of the assets of private market because they get a lot of innovations, ideas and resource. People try out. Some do not work and some do well. When we look at the failure of community level we see it as bad. We should not overemphasize failure. One of the things the media persons can be doing is also making stories about some of the unusual successes or failures. You need to balance it. If you write everything as failure, it cannot be justified.
If a person cannot have property, how can he or she benefit?
Do you have the right to go for work for somebody? Do you have property rights? They are going to make a big difference with slavery and freedom, sometimes bargain over working conditions and its resources. Serfdoms existed in a great deal of the world until that not a long ago and we have to give answers for. I am not encouraging to go back to that tradition, if you don’t have any ownership at all.
During your visit to Nepal, you have met the president of Nepal, other officials and common people. How did they respond to your findings?
Well. I had good exchanges and people are listening. But, you can do an incredible job of making people respect their own country and not to hold on graft and corruptions. The role of the press is very important in keeping private and public sectors on track, reducing bad practices. If there are some efforts to look at the positive as well as negative sides, then Nepalese will discourage and they will roll back bad sides. Out of this I have heard a lot of positive things. If you don’t feed positive things, it will discourage people. In farmer managed irrigation projects, the farmers spend a huge amount of work. Some of the irrigation cannels built right through hills without any festive events. I have walked a lot of aid developed irrigation systems built by spending millions. However, these canals are not transporting water but mud. Interestingly, the farmers who work hard to construct the canals find the water in their canals all the time.
What model do Nepalese enjoy?
I don’t think you want either to be dominant. The mixed will be better. There should be certainly a role for the state or national government. Part of that role is to support university and new innovations. Many new innovations come out, if there is a way to support innovation, and entrepreneurship. What do you want is innovations and new ways of thinking about things, based on your traditions. So there is difference between I will hate everything in past and I have often been on way for the future. That will be not very wise. Then you will be throwing some of your real assets. Your past and history is your part of traditions and assets. If you get rigid about those and you don’t enable innovations, you can consume yourself.