To celebrate its 75th anniversary,
the AFD organized a conference on “Commons and Development”
(Paris, December 2016, 1-2)
Where does the concept of the commons come from ?
From Roman law, which refers to the res communis, the thing which belongs to everyone, as opposed to the res nullius, which belongs to no one. The concept of the commons consequently appears in the definition of various ownership statuses to designate areas shared within a community : a path, a public square, a beach, a forest, a pasture, etc. Although in practice, the commons date back to before their definition by Roman law, the concept especially experienced a huge success in the Middle Ages with the “communals” and the rewriting of Roman law by European theologians after the Gregorian reform. Since man has been conducting agriculture, i.e. some 13,000 years, rural communities have been managing certain areas collectively, depending on rules which allow them to be identified as commons. Fundamentally, the commons are probably the most ancestral relationship to property known to humankind.
How would you define the commons today ?
It is a natural or cultural resource shared by a group, with specific distribution, preservation and promotion rules. A community may very well be created at the same time as the resource, in the very eminently political gesture whereby it designates such a resource as a common. Consequently, it is necessary to move away from a naturalist vision of the common, which would seek to identify certain characteristics in order to decide whether such or such a good is in essence a private, public or common good.
Behind each common, is there the political decision of a community, which appoints itself as being responsible for the resource ?
Yes, there is. The essence of a common does not pre-exist its existence, as it were. One example is Wikipedia : it is a cultural common, shared by all Internet users and to which everyone can contribute, hence there is a community of users and producers whose interactions are, furthermore, regulated. The Wikipedia team monitors conflicts over definitions, approximated comments, settling scores, etc. Consequently, we cannot subscribe to a sort of anarchist naivety whereby the truth emerges spontaneously from an informed collective. Shares rules are necessary. A common refers to three components : a resource, a community and rules.
Does this sound the death knell for private ownership ?
During a conference on the commons given by the Alliance Française in Recife in Brazil, I witnessed an anguished reaction by someone who suspected that behind the idea of the “commons”, there was a hidden North Korean type of political project. In the USA, between 2001 and 2007, this ideology of the small owner did nonetheless serve as a pretext for the greatest departure from the financial route in history – the subprimes crisis. Consequently, it is important to also break away from the fascination for this Jeffersonian inspired myth. The provocative hypothesis of the anthropologist David Graeber, by which Roman private ownership would appear to stem from a transfer to the man-good relationship from the exclusive relation between a master and his slave, must give us food for thought. In this respect, the ambiguities of Thomas Jefferson are revealing.
But the fact remains that my correspondent in Receife was completely mistaken : the Soviet, Chinese or North Korean world aims at public ownership of goods. The commons are totally opposite to a pure bureaucratic and public management of resources. In certain cases, a common such as French culture, for example, indeed has something fundamental to do with the Nation-State, and consequently with a certain political course associated with the State, but this again, and by far, does not mean that it is a “public” good. And of course, in many other cases such as Wikipedia or open source software, the State framework is largely surpassed.
Furthermore, there are commons that are unfortunately without a community to manage them. Consequently, according to certain oceanographers, we run the risk of seeing edible fisheries fauna disappear from the oceans towards 2050, if we continue to practice industrial deep sea fishing at the current rate. Similarly, we are well aware of the fact that bees may disappear, particularly due to agricultural pollutants (it is for this reason that they sometimes manage to thrive in our cities). The State framework alone is not adequate to address this problem, even though it is essential. There is no global community to take care of edible fish. This is also more generally the case for biodiversity, the destruction of which may prove to have even more devastating effects than the climate. Ecologists are extremely concerned about this point. For the time being, we are unprepared…
Why are the commons of particular interest to a donor like AFD ?
They are of central interest, as the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by United Nations Member States in September 2015 show us that the bulk of our problems are now shared, in a world where the North-South border is tending to disappear. Our greatest challenges concern the resilience of societies, in the North and South alike, faced with climate change, pollution and the progressive scarcity of mining resources, but also faced with the disruption of social ties caused in particular by the violent political reactions to ecological problems. The Syrian disaster was triggered by the 2007-2010 drought, without, of course, all of this crisis being due to the drought alone. The congress organized by the World Bank last spring on “The State of the Economy – The State of the World” recorded this point : we economists have the unfortunate tendency of underestimating the impact of these upheavals. The truth is that they now represent a greater threat than the nuclear risk, for example.
Yet pooling resources with rules for sharing is an essential resilience factor. Development must involve a renewed understanding by institutions which have already allowed communities in the past, and will allow them in the future, to preserve, develop and promote common, cultural or natural resources. This latter distinction would in itself be worth deconstructing in line with Philippe Descola.
One example : the Sara Madjingaye language (or Sar), spoken between Kumra village and the city of Sarh in Chad, is ultimately threatened by the combined influence of Arabic, French and English. Yet this language is a common of the various Sar ethnic groups in Chad. How can it be preserved and promoted ? Hundreds of idioms have disappeared from humanity. Alexandre de Rhodes, in Vietnam, transcribed Vietnamese and contributed to “firmly establishing” this language. If he had not done so, the Vietnamese would probably be speaking Mandarin today.
Yet the wealth of languages, and therefore of cultures, has as much value as biodiversity, which is now at its sixth phase of “major extinction”. We destroy a lot at the cultural level, and consequently the possibility of coming up with solutions tailored to specific environments. It involves fighting against cultural uniformity, which Jacques Derrida called “Global-Latinization”.
Other examples : communities which today manage to survive both in Detroit, a ghost town which used to be one of the flagships of North American industry, and in the ruins of Homs in Syria, deploy treasures of resilience. This is also part of our subject.
Are the commons a matter of urgency ?
The last mass extinction phase affected dinosaurs and 40 % of animal species 65 million years ago. At each of these phases, a substantial proportion of fauna was lost within a phenomenon of a massive decline of biodiversity.
To account for this, in the 1970s, the American biologist Leigh Van Valen made the assumption “of the Red Queen” (a character from the tale by Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland, who “runs to stay in the same place”, Editor’s Note).
In a context of environmental stability, large animal organisms develop, such as dinosaurs. From an economic perspective, they benefit from increasing returns to scale (as is the case with large industrial groups), which allow them to dissipate more energy and more efficiently. In this respect, they are increasingly effective thermodynamic machines, but also consume more and more and end up rapidly modifying their environment. This interaction obliges them to adapt. A stage may arrive whereby their genetic adaptation is too slow to face the rapid changes they have brought about in their own living environment. They consequently disappear, victims of their own influence on their vital ecosystem. Humankind is engaged in this “Red Queen” effect with the climate, the increasing scarcity of natural resources, and the destruction of biodiversity.
From a biological perspective, the disappearance of large organisms (e.g., large trees in a forest) removes pressure on the environment and makes space for the smallest organisms (e.g., undergrowth), which are more “innovative” and able to adapt to a disrupted environment.
Why organize a major academic conference on the coordination between the commons and development dynamics ?
A great deal of research is produced on the issue, by economists, sociologists, lawyers, anthropologists… We want to bring together these scientific communities from both the North and South at the same event in order to dialogue with public policymakers, local authorities and private actors. Our aim is to determine guidelines for future actions from this renewed understanding of the commons.
What challenges are posed for this understanding of the commons ?
There are a whole host of them. How can we move from local experiences to more globalized management methods for the main global commons ? What is the State’s role in the management of commons ? Some people, such as Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, the authors of The Common : An Essay on the 21st Century Revolution (La Découverte, Paris, 2014), argue that the State has nothing to do with the commons and embodies an obstacle to their management.
At AFD, we feel that while the State must not necessarily directly manage these commons, (which would ipso facto become public goods), it must create the conditions for possibilities for the emergence of commons within civil society and the private sector. For example, promote the creativity of civil society to form coalitions and manage commons – through NGOs, cooperatives, etc. The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDI) network is a wonderful example of joint management, at international level, of the cheap drugs industry in order to fight against diseases for which there is no solvent customer base with regard to the standard criteria of the traditional private sector. It is a fundamental initiative for health in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, and who can have any doubt today, after H1N1 or Ebola in particular, that health for all is a global common good ?
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.