Elinor Ostrom on creativity and ecology

The first woman to win the Nobel Prize for economics— Elinor Ostrom—credits USAID with launching her interest in development research.

Ostrom’s work challenges popular convention that common, or user-owned, resources, such as grazing land, forests, fisheries, and irrigation systems, are poorly managed by communities. In the late 1980s, a USAID grant brought Ostrom to Nepal to begin work studying development assistance and farmer managed irrigation. Her more recent USAID-funded research at Virginia Tech focused on how alternative forest management policies and governance in developing countries affect the livelihoods of local forest users while protecting forests. This research builds upon the work for which she received the Nobel Prize.

A political science professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ostrom shares the $1.4 million prize with Oliver Williamson of the University of California, Berkeley.

Ostrom, 76, said her respect for people drives her work in development.

“I’ve seen ingenious work done by poor people who don’t read, who haven’t had a chance to go to school, who earn $2 to $3 a day, roughly, and yet, their ideas are ingenious,” she said in an interview with FrontLines. “The problems they face are immense, and if I can possibly help, ‘Yes!’”

Ostrom’s research shows that community ownership or management of common property, such as forests, water resources, and fisheries, is more effective than commonly thought. She cites as an example the Maine lobster fishery, which is in better condition than a decade or two ago due to rules and monitoring developed by lobster fishermen.

She does note, however, that decentralized management of common resources is not always the answer and cautions against “formulaic decentralization,” which she has found can promote destruction of resources. Ostrom points to successful examples of centralized forest management, such as national forest reserves in Uganda that encourage local people to plant trees.

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