40th Anniversary Blog Series

Working together to study collective action

August 27, 2015
by Ruth Meinzen-Dick

The following post by Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Coordinator of the CGIAR program on Collective Action and Property Rights (CAPRi), is part of an ongoing series of blog stories celebrating IFPRI’s 40th anniversary. Each story authored by current and former IFPRI research staff highlights a key research topic through the years from the personal perspective of the researcher.

I started working at IFPRI in 1989, conducting research on irrigation system management. One of the major issues that arises in irrigation is that farmers need to work together, to share water and keep the systems operating. But such cooperation, often referred to as collective action, is by no means automatic. The important question is: What factors increase or inhibit collective action?

Other CGIAR centers were working on other resources that require cooperation: forests, rangelands, and fisheries, for example. In the mid-1990s, several of those centers approached IFPRI for cooperation, and we were able to pool our resources to learn across different types of natural resources. The CGIAR Systemwide Program on Collective Action and Property Rights (CAPRi) was formally launched in 1996.  Although there was initial skepticism about why agricultural research systems should deal with seemingly abstract institutions like collective action and property rights, by 1997 all of the CGIAR Centers had joined the Program. Within five years, over 400 organizations had partnered with CGIAR research on these topics.

The following conceptual framework has been CAPRi conceptual framework instrumental in showing the relevance of collective action and property rights institutions for the work of CGIAR On the time scale (horizontal axis), technologies and practices that have a short time frame between investment and returns, such as within a season, are on the left, with those that have longer time frames placed toward the right. On the spatial scale (vertical axis), those that can be adopted on a single plot are near the bottom, with those operating at larger areas—landscape or community level, up to the international—are placed higher. For example, high-yielding crop varieties would be in the bottom left-hand corner because they can be adopted by a single farmer and give short-term returns, making it possible for even tenant farmers to adopt them. As the time between investment and return increases, property rights become more important in order to provide incentive and authorization to invest. For example, planting trees can be done on a single plot, but tenants or others without secure property rights do not have the authority or incentive to make these investments. As the spatial scale increases beyond a single farm, some form of coordination is needed to adopt a practice, and coordination is often through collective action. Many types of Integrated Pest Management, for example, give returns within a season, but are not nearly as effective if adopted by a single farmer acting alone. This framework indicates that much of agricultural research relates to at least one of these key institutions. In particular, most natural resource management relates to both coordination and property rights.

Furthermore, collective action can be empowering, especially for women. For this reason, group membership has been included as one of the key indicators in the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index. It is also an important way for small-scale producers to access markets.

Collective action is important toward achieving such empowerment, but its impacts are far from automatic. Much of CAPRi’s work has been addressing what factors affect collective action, and what can be done to strengthen it. Those looking for a simple policy lever are usually disappointed—just creating groups and signing people up does not ensure collective action. To me, that’s like running an electrical power line to a house, which in itself doesn’t guarantee there will be electricity in the house. You have to understand what motivates people to work together in different contexts in order to learn about the challenges and opportunities in different groups, members, cultures, and so on.

Fortunately, there’s a wealth of theoretical and empirical work on the factors that get people to cooperate, and CAPRi has been fortunate to include hundreds of excellent researchers and practitioners over the years, including Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her work on collective action and the commons.

We’ve also worked with a great diversity of methods for studying collective action, ranging from action research case studies and statistical analyses comparing many cases to experimental games. In recent years, it’s been exciting to see whether we can use experimental games as a tool to not only study factors affecting collective action for water management, but also to strengthen collective action on the ground in the communities where we work.

Collective action is not a panacea, but it will continue to play a critical role in many aspects of development. The groups and institutions engaged in collective action reflect the diversity of the resources that make up the commons: from forests to community watersheds, insect and plant biodiversity to our oceans and atmosphere, rural rangelands to urban gardens. As researchers, we must take advantage of the opportunity to appreciate and learn from such diversity, apply what we learn to build on people’s capacity for collective action, and share our knowledge with others to ensure a more sustainable future for all.