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The Community Pantry and the Triumph of the Commons

The community pantry has gone viral!

You know something is legit when it has been picked up by international news. The idea that a community can come together in adversity is something that sparks curiosity and inspires a bit of introspection, which is sort of odd considering that isn’t that supposed to be the way to go?

Ana Patricia Non is front and center of this initiative. What started as a community effort in my old hood of Maginhawa has now erupted into a global phenomenon. Maginhawa does foster that vibe – I moved there for a reason when I enrolled for grad school at the nearby UP campus in Diliman. It has always carried this young, engaging, creative, and collaborative energy, and I am not at all surprised that something as quintessentially rooted in social consciousness and the drive to take action started in the street that I once called home. Of course, it had to be Maginhawa.

A week after the Maginhawa Community Pantry was established, similar concepts popped up across many cities and towns in the nation.  I’m not here to dignify with any further anger or rebuke the recent incidents that led to the temporary closure of the pantry. It is disheartening to see how motives are being questioned and political color has tainted what started out as a kind gesture from someone who just had a little something extra to give. Community efforts geared towards helping those with less privilege seem to be such a groundbreaking concept these days that validation-hungry Filipinos take pride in having churned out a grassroots initiative premised entirely on common decency, altruism, and maybe a bit of social pressure.

Of course, the people are upset. And in true Pinoy fashion, the collective response is to show up. Local initiatives popped up by the dozens and community pantry food banks have opened up faster than those with ill will could shut them down. Soon, there will be more community pantries than we will know what to do with. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

In a world where these movements gain such momentum because of the promise to a “better society” that they carry, it is easy to become pessimistic and skeptical. Critics say that the movement will fizzle out, just like any viral trend that has had its 15 seconds of fame. This lack of faith in the sustainability of the community pantry concept seems to be born out of our jadedness and frustration with the social environment that we live in.



The tragedy of the commons

After all, dog-eat-dog, each-man-to-himself living conditions in dysfunctional societies is a well studied and much discussed phenomenon particularly as explained by Game Theory. This brings me back to undergrad Economics, when we discussed how greed, selfishness, and inequality in consumption portend a grim future for the community. If everyone were to take and take and not give, acting in self-interest to enrich oneself at the expense of others, this results in the often irreversible depletion of resources, spoiling the fun for everybody else who stood to benefit from this resource.

Garrett Hardin, the economist behind the concept of shared resources and the Tragedy of the Commons wrote about this in detail, pointing out that in communities where demand greatly outweighs supply (or social stratification allows unequal accessibility to the resource), and consumption and exploitation of resources is largely unregulated, the selfish motives of the citizens will lead to disastrous outcomes. His idea of inherent greed among humans is premised on a realist, rational, self-interested and zero-sum idea of society.

Although one may argue that a similar picture applies to the concept of community pantries, it does say a lot about the dynamics of income distribution, access, and food security in a productivity-driven and competitive society with limited resources. After all, the prevailing model and motivation of why we go on our daily productive pursuits is hinged on the idea of being able to compete for these finite resources. In an unequal society, the varying capability among citizens to access resources leads others to pursue their own interests. 

This is where our link between the community pantries and the Tragedy of the Commons starts to stretch and becomes a bit reaching: for it is not regulation that will sustain the commons, contrary to the principles averred in Hardin’s treatise.  I don’t believe any firm regulation such as quotas, limits, and allocations apply to something that was born out of free agency. In the case of the community pantry, what threatens its existence isn’t the greed and the inability of the people to set aside their “hoarding” mentality and take more than they need. What is detrimental to these initiatives are stringent regulations that goes against the very fabric of volunteerism and pakikipag-kapwa. Every similar community pantry comes with a small request: kumuha lang nang naaayon sa pangangailangan. Take what you need for the day. The rest is implied: take what you need because there will still be some when you come back. That is, for other people to choose to do the same as well and participate in the social contract, for other beneficiaries to take only what they require for the day and leaving some for others, and for donors to give more from the abundance of their own pantries.  Everybody is happy. 

I argue that unlike the typical “commons” which exist naturally for everyone’s benefit, community pantries had to be created out of altruism and initiative (more on this later). After all, much of the contemporary applications of the Tragedy of the Commons is dominant in discussions of environmental sustainability and protection, especially in the context of climate change mitigation and reduction. Therefore, we diverge paths from Hardin because the commons he theorizes on are largely, although not exclusively naturally existing common resources.  

Common-pool resources

This is where our badass economist boss lady comes in. 

Meet Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics  (one of two badass women to hold this distinction, the other one being Esther Duflo) for her treatise on common-pool resources (CPRs), counter to Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. By chronicling case studies of how communal systems in certain societies have endured despite the lack of strict regulation by the government, Ostrom was able to demonstrate how the community can come together and self-regulate. As a social constructivist, I can roll with this idea precisely because the application of Ostrom’s common-pool resource fits perfectly in the mechanics of community pantries.

Without getting too technical about it, the sustainability of CPRs such as community pantries is feasible with mere self-management by the community. There only needs to be what Ostrom called common property protocols, which are arrangements, rules and unwritten policies based on self-management and self-enforcement. The policing comes from the person himself, acting as if Big Brother is always watching. Here, Ostrom proves that stricter external regulation (in the case of community pantries, having to face red tape, permits – unnecessary bureaucracy) is not needed because of collective action. Simply put, if and only if the members of the community do this out of kindness and genuine concern towards one another, community pantries can thrive and prosper, and any abuses will be dealt with accordingly through the enforcement of complex unwritten social contracts and norms. 

Common property protocols 

Ostrom gives us the idea of long-enduring CPRs which are principles embedded in any social system that hinge on volunteerism and collective action.  In order for these systems, including community pantries, to be stable, sustainable and consistent, everyone needs to agree upon a set common property protocols:

Ostrom holds that in order for CPRs to be sustainable, there should be clearly defined boundaries. Community pantries operate on a basic contract of give and take. Although we will be hard-pressed to find ways to dictate what amount is reasonable (what if the person taking it will feed 12 children, that sort of thing) we can all agree that everyone has to be held to a certain level of hiya and accountability. Not because it is free for all, it is free for anyone to take all. There must be congruence between provision rules and local conditions i.e. there must be a pressing need for the system to thrive. This is easy. People need to eat because they don’t have a source of income as a result of the pandemic, and therefore will have more incentive to not piss of the donors by being too greedy. If one greedy person kills the spirit of the movement by hoarding the goods, he will end up in a very bad position because he just killed the goose that lays golden eggs, so to speak.

There must also be collective choice agreements allowing for the participation of the appropriators in the decision-making process. This one comes as an inevitability due to the nature of the system – the voluntary basis in which these pantries operate gives donors the flexibility to decide whether or not to give. The receiver simply has to adjust if they were to participate responsibly. If the pie gets smaller, then take a smaller slice. It doesn’t mean you don’t take, but you take what is reasonable based on your judgment, bearing in mind that others want a slice of the pie, too. Just hope that the pie is bigger next time, then you can take a bigger slice.

The next protocol is what’s interesting. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part, or are accountable to the appropriators is covered by the very public and viral nature of the community pantries. The movement is social media driven, and the worst  fear of anyone in community drives is to be outed as an irresponsible member of the system. The sanctions for those who do not respect community rules are heavy and serious, as social pressure to be in one’s best behavior is intense. Everyone develops a sense of ownership of the system, and are rooting for it to work because their next meal depends on whether or not this system continues.

Furthermore, there should be minimal recognition of  the right to organize, such as by the government, which means that in order for a benevolent system of give and take to thrive and last beyond the pandemic, there should not be any restrictive policy that will interfere with or have a chilling effect on the community-driven and feel-good dynamic of giving. 

The last protocol that Ostrom suggested is organisation, which is not a non-negotiable and is only the last resort for when the movement has gotten so big that a certain level of policing e.g. reminding about rules, setting non-rigid templates for compliance, and some level of compulsion to keep as close to the original as possible. The reason why organisation and a certain form of management of large-scale and geographically dispersed CPRs is not the biggest priority for community pantries is because these pantries are largely autonomous, community driven and spontaneous. The desire to put up a pantry is driven by localized social awareness, the eagerness to participate and the desire to be part of something. As long as the same sacrosanct rules are observed, any pantry can self-identify and enjoy attachment to the movement. 

Proper management of common-pool resources entails devising commonly established principles that limit the amount withdrawn from the pantry to keep it sustainable.  Setting limits too high would lead to overuse and eventually, depletion, and setting the limits too low would unnecessarily have a freezing effect because of our hiya and malasakit systems. This is an important consideration in a social system such as the community pantry where the reasonable amount is left to the beneficiary to define and identify. The ask is that nobody judges what anybody else takes (no side eyes and judgy looks from the people behind you in the queue), and instead everyone acts in good faith. This way, you participate and ambag (everyone’s favorite word these days) by A. donating, B. taking according to the available supply only.

Devising rules that effectively allow sustainable use of community pantries requires some healthy regulation that A. limit access to the system, and B. limit the amount, timing, and process used to withdraw resource units from the system. Although community pantries seem to operate on a simple enough premise of give and take, what’s actually very complex is the underlying social policy attached to this give and take relationship.

In short, community pantries will only work if we understand these protocols. Although we may not be aware of these protocols explicitly, the mere fact that it is working and thriving already speaks volumes the sophistication of Ostrom’s thesis. The ordinary folk queuing on the sidewalk does not need an Economics degree to understand this. His very Filipino values of hiya, malasakit, bayanihan and amor proprio guide him to behave a certain way. If Hardin’s doom and gloom view of resource allocation was on the pessimistic side of things, Ostrom chose to see what is apparent in societies who have more to lose if they do not cooperate. However, both Hardin and Ostrom are expressing the same fundamental idea. Regardless of which paradigm you subscribe to, it all boils down to a very simple conclusion which applies to pretty much any social scenario: don’t be an asshole. 

***

In social contexts like the Philippines, ambag or contribution  is often mistaken as an outward output. However, social systems and conventions such as “donating” is defined by having A and B  actors, the donor and the receiver. In a strict sense, you are contributing to this system even if you take because donors get some level of satisfaction in donating, but what will that do if there is nobody out there in need of donated goods?  Of course, this is a simplistic explanation, since the goal is equality in access to goods and services so that nobody ever needs to take donations as it is simply given by a benevolent state. Let’s make that very clear. I’m not saying we should aspire to a society where donations are the norm. However, we can aspire to a community where kindness, generosity and concern for others abound as drivers for collective action. 

Ostrom’s idea of CPR management is the very answer to critics who say that community pantries are ningas cogon, a shortlived, hype-driven viral sensation that will die down because the average Filipino does not know how to share. This is insulting to the plight of hungry Filipinos, and everyone who believes in this is eyeballs deep in privilege and is very much part of the problem.

Instead of raining on this fabulous parade, we can all take time and hold ourselves accountable in maintaining, safeguarding, and sustaining this exercise in kindness and brotherhood. Needless to say, we must not be complacent in seeking higher accountability from those whose job is to create the right conditions for a prosperous society where we don’t have to take matters to our own hands.  

 

Photo by Julia M. Cameron, Pexels 

 

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