In Memoriam: Elinor Ostrom

Our good friend and colleague Elinor Ostrom passed away on 12 June 2012 after a long illness. Elinor was the first, and to date only, woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics. Ravi Kanbur, who worked closely with Elinor, reflects on her life and work:

I first got to know Lin Ostrom well on a personal level when we both served on the Swedish government's Development Council. We jointly proposed ‘informality’ as an important topic for the Council to consider, and this eventually resulted in a major conference organized jointly with, and hosted by, UNU-WIDER in Helsinki. Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis and I then worked with Lin on the volume that came out of the conference, Linking the Formal and Informal Economy: Concepts and Policies. I remember well visiting her in Bloomington, Indiana, to put the finishing touches to the overview—Basudeb joined by video conference. She took me to her house and taught me something that I do to this day—put maple syrup in my tea!

Lin was a sharp and committed intellect, and warm and giving person. Her work on management of the commons is foundational in development, and the perspective developed in that line of work is present strongly in our volume. Different people will see different aspects of her work as being crucial—for me, it was her empirical demonstration, and then insistence in policy contexts, that the ‘informal’ sector was not chaotic and disorganized, but had its own logic and structure. This logic was for outsiders to understand, but it could not be dismissed or ignored. Indeed, it was precisely such an erroneous mindset that had led to major policy failures like nationalization of forests in many developing countries. The last two decades have seen significant moves to bring back local management of common pool resources, driven in large part by the meticulous and tireless research and policy advocacy of Lin and her colleagues and students.

In the time that I knew Lin, I came to appreciate her warm personality, and her essential character as a team player. She always gave credit to others rather than taking it herself, and looked to build analytical capacity, in developed and developing countries. In interactions she treated all with equal respect and attention. I will miss her.

Professor Ravi Kanbur is T.H. Lee Professor of World Affairs, International Professor of Applied Economics and Management, and Professor of Economics at Cornell University. He is a member of the UNU-WIDER Board.

Some interviews with Elinor Ostrom can be viewed from the following links:

Our policies have made people hungry

Expert advice for development economists at the start of their careers

Ideas to broaden the researcher base in developing countries