How can we redesign and reorganize governance to tackle the world’s greatest challenges, from poverty to climate change?

By Alejandro de Guzman

As our modern society continues to evolve into an ever-expanding consumerist culture where economic growth is valued above all at any cost, it can no longer be avoided that the natural resources required for this are finite and therefore must be protected and new alternative solutions, such as renewable energy sources, must be researched. A form of collective governance where all sectors are involved and have vested interests in its development, from the man in the street to a global multinational corporation or intergovernmental organization, should be pursued to its best potential so as to ensure the continuity of those resources which are currently endangered.

Governance, Collective Action and Contemporary Challenges of the Tragedy of the Commons

As the human race continues on its evolutionary path into the 21st century, it faces new problems as well as continues to leave perennial ones unresolved. Scientific studies have proven that the temperature and climate of the planet are shifting significantly, and this can lead to a variety of environmental problems from the melting of the polar regions, rising of ocean levels and ecological system changes that can and affect the entire feeding chain and migration patterns eradicating certain species of animals, which would also negatively affect human populations at the top of the pyramid of life.

Other problems, such as the lack of basic human necessities such as potable water and enough food or shelter for decent human habitation, have existed since the first cities and political territorial demarcations were established thousands of years ago. The widening gap between rich and poor in the world, where it is currently estimated that half of the world’s economic wealth is owned by less than one percent of the population, proves that technological achievements  have not been efficiently used to improve the conditions of as many people of this planet as they potentially could.

There are several issues that individuals face when the pursuit of common objectives is attempted through collective action. In his famous book, The Logic of Collective Action, Mancur Olson proposes that groups of people will not necessarily cooperate to obtain common beneficial objectives but that rather they will only do so if they perceive to receive individual rewards for their effort and participation. He suggests that smaller groups of people are easier to manage than larger ones to overcome the “few vs the many paradox”. Coercive measures or personal incentives must exist in order to motivate the members of the group to push along the collective action and to maximize the possibility of its success. It is more difficult for an individual to “hide” in a bigger group, and free ride with whatever the majority of the group decides, or what the more vocal and assertive members decide is in the common interest (Fioramonti 2013: Class Notes).

Governance, especially new forms of governance, can help improve collective action. The term “governance” has been defined in a variety of ways. The author Kjaer (2006: 3) provides three principal definitions from other recognized political scientists such as Rhodes, Rosenau and Hyden, which include “the self-organizing, inter organizational networks characterized by inter-dependence, resource-exchange, rules of the game, and significant authority from the state”, “systems of rule at all levels of human activity…” and “…the stewardship of formal and informal political rules of the game…those measures that that involve setting the rules for the exercise of power and settling conflicts over such rules.” Governance therefore is by no means restricted to institutions belonging to the traditional state system, but rather is an intricate inter-related and interdependent web of both state and non-state actors at not only local and national level, but also in the international arena. Civil society organizations as well as the common man on the street must be made to feel not only as being part of the problem but also as part of the solution. Collective coordination amongst all these elements must be improved upon and solidified so as to maximize the efficiency and success of good governance policies and processes to find solutions for collective problems.

The contemporary state of governance in practice, as depicted in The Governance Report for 2013, divides it into three main orders: First Order Governance, which deals with the allocation of rights and responsibilities to those who will implement the solution to the issue or problem that has been identified; Second Order Governance, concerned with the establishment of rules and regulations, as well as the supervising, monitoring, incentivizing, sanctioning and actual implementation, and the Policy Outcome, which evaluates the success of the first two orders and their legitimacy. To counter the negative effects of conflict of interests between private actors, motivated by profit, and public entities, often bound to political restraint, the report advises that “national and private interests can often best be achieved through cooperation-management of spillover effects; seeking policy buy-in of others; and, importantly, more participatory governance”. It recommends that not only coercive, deterring and authoritative measures be used to enforce, but also what it calls “strategic coalition building and trust-building measures”, so as to find a harmonious balance between the different interests of all stakeholders, and achieve solutions beneficial to all.

Basic problems of collective action often lead to less-than desirable results because of what Garret Hardin described as the “tragedy of the commons”, where lack of regulation and control of them, will lead to their eventual destruction and negative consequences for humanity. Written in 1968, it already could forecast many of our contemporary challenges that can be described as tragedies of the commons, or those resources characterized by open use, access and enjoyment by all members of society, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, wash in, the seas where a significant portion of the human diet inhabits, public land and wild forests, amongst others. (Hardin 1968: 1244-1248).

Hardin already warned that high human population levels were damaging these resources and in the almost 50 years since then it has more than doubled around the world, further damaging these resources through pollution, overfishing, misuse and increasing poverty. Nevertheless, The Tragedy of the Commons became the blueprint for many nations’ environmental governance mechanisms that exist today. To resolve these issues, it is recommended that a combination of coercion, taxation and limited access to the commons is established to ensure their survival. (Fioramonti 2013: Class notes).


To believe that there is a single solution to such problems is unrealistic. Neither the state, private enterprises, nor individual citizens are efficient enough to carry the responsibilities on their own. Rather a system where political will, corporate responsibility and citizen action through civil society participation and measures such as education, awareness campaigns, or what has been described as “mutually agreed-upon coercion”, which include taxation and responsible use of our collective resources, are necessary to ensure the viability and continued endurance of our most valuable resources, without which our species and planet could not survive.




Fioramonti, L. 2013. Class Notes and slides.

Hardin, G. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons” in Science, 162 (3859): 1243-1248.

Kjaer, A.M. 2006. Governance. London: Polity Press.

Olson, M. 1971. The Logic of Collective Action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

The Governance Report 2013

7 responses to “How can we redesign and reorganize governance to tackle the world’s greatest challenges, from poverty to climate change?

  1. This is a well written assignment, well done.
    I think collective action is indeed difficult in the presence of privatization, but constant awareness could develop some (little) conscious in people’s minds when engaging in commons. Tragedy of the commons is something that can be reduced but I doubt that can be faced away. We need individual and group willingness to collectively strive towards saving the common resources; the difficulty is how to organize people and get them to disregard personal interests.

  2. @Khuzane, you raised an interesting fact,which is to develop a constant awareness when engaging in commons but the problem is awareness rhymes with information then information leads to who must develop awareness; the principal or the agent? let take the example of the 60 s where the principal encourage the production of populating products which they knew were destroying the environment and human life but hide it to the agents vice versa. i think what we need most is “Ethics” which i think most societies are facing a crisis considering the impact of globalization. jurisprudence i will note the fact that values and principles are not universal but there are at least universal ethics which everyone is entitled to as a human being.

  3. It’s important how we think about these things and how we frame our thoughts. In reality, the tragedy of the commons is the tragedy of the anti-commons. The commons is that which, within a particular commnity in a particular place, is collectively owned, used, regulated, controlled, maintained, and conserved.

    “The classic solution to the public goods problem has been to use taxes to pay for public goods, thus adjusting their supply level upwards (presumably towards the optimum). The classic solution to the `tragedy of the commons’ problem, provided by Hardin (1968), has been to transform the resource into a private good (either by privatising it or by turning it into government property with proper monitoring). One of the main reasons for which Elinor Ostrom received her Nobel Prize is the discovery that these classic solutions are not the only possible ones. What Ostrom discovered in her empirical studies is that, despite what economists have thought, communities often create and enforce rules against free-riding and assure the long-term sustainability of communal properties. Her `design principles’ explain under what conditions this happens and when it fails.”

    Land. water or any other natural resource that isn’t owned in common isn’t a commons. An over-fished ocean isn’t caused by common ownership and so isn’t tragedy of the commons. Yeah, it is a tragedy, but we need to be clear what kind of tragedy it is. Blaming it on the wrong thing isn’t helpful.

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