Common Goods, an alternative to neoliberalism

An Africa that possesses such abundant natural resources – energy, mineral, land, water, forest – should be able to enjoy them, but often these riches become a sort of curse for the local people. The problem is linked to the neoliberal way of managing trade between countries that are rich in resources and those that want to acquire them. Recognising the concept of common/public goods and the involvement of the people in their management could be an alternative to neoliberalism, affecting as it does the heart of this philosophy, trade.


Today, there is a growing movement that sees natural resources as “common goods” to be managed by the community so that they benefit the local people and not just investors and the local elite.


Historically, every society and civilisation has developed public goods and services: communal wells, public washhouses, shared areas, markets, roads, etc. for all to use. There were also common/collective goods, such as pastureland, irrigations systems and forests to provide wood for heating and building and where people picked mushrooms, medicinal plants and seasonal fruits. All members of the community had access to these resources, but this access was controlled in a way that guaranteed their sustainability. These resources were managed collectively and often the community entrusted the responsibility for management to someone who would be accountable to the whole community.


There can be no “common good” without a community that controls and manages it in the service of all. There are traditional common goods – rivers, forests, crops, water – and modern ones such as the internet, intellectual property and solar energy. Common goods (also known as ‘commons’) are resources cannot be individual property or traded.


In today’s globalised world, the concept of ‘commons’ needs to be broadened to include categories that can be managed ‘in common’ but at a global level. The UN is working on these ‘global commons’, resources that are vital for life. They can be natural resources (air, water, biodiversity, forests, sun, climate, energy) but also intangible ones such as knowledge, Wikipedia and free software. While the former can be exhausted through overuse, intangible resources become more available the more they are shared. Their management and the right to use them need to be regulated by a democratic global body that would establish rules that ensured the sustainability of the resource and the collective right to use them in sufficient quantity and quality.


At times, the North invokes humanity’s ‘commons’ to justify the exploitation by business of the natural resources of the South. For example, by saying “the Amazon is the lungs of the world”, they are preventing the self-determination of Brazilian and indigenous peoples and hindering access to the metals needed for industrial development, without according the right to the local people to make decisions about their resources.


Christian Faith and the Commons

The commons is a Biblical concept rooted in Bible principles and lived out by the early Christian Church.


When God gave the Law to Israel, He instructed “those who have” to make provision for “those who have not”. In Deuteronomy 24:19-21, He tells his people to leave on the field some grain, olives, grapes from their harvest for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. In Israel these were those having no rights.


God asked the Israelites to be generous to their brothers and lend the poor whatever they needed. Deuteronomy 15:1-2 mentions that every seven years, the Israelites were to cancel the debts that were owed to them.


The first Christians went even beyond that. Seeing the needs of others, those who had plenty realized that what they owned was not really theirs, but had been given to them by God to meet the needs of others. So they voluntarily decided to give up the individual ownership of some of their possessions. They chose to put these things in common, so that those in need could have their needs covered.


Now all the believers were together and had everything in common. So they sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. —
Acts 2:44-45[1]


The situation of the early Church is similar to the situation of the world in the 21st century: some people lack the necessary to live, while others have abundance and can meet the needs of those lacking if they so choose. If today’s situation is similar, why could not be the solution the same too, sharing at least what is necessary for others to live? “They had everything in common”. Has God’s mind changed or is it that women and men in the 21st century do not want to listen to what God is asking them? The structures of allowing the “gleaning” and “having everything in common” have to be adapted to 21st century and become structures that provide for the well-being of all. Included in these structures are the “commons” managed at local level and the “universal common goods” managed at global level.


Common Goods, an alternative to neoliberalism

The concept of common good is linked to a different vision of the world, of society and of the economy where solidarity, interdependence and a sense of community are seen in a sharing of the earth’s resources that belong to us all. It represents an alternative that can develop a new system of production and exchange in which the right of access to the resources bears no relation to their price. This system would respect life for everyone on the planet and could be the foundation of a different type of economy and social order where Africa would have its rightful place in the world.


Democratic management of common goods is in contradiction to the capitalist/neoliberal thinking on private property.  Commons are a way of achieving human rights (socio-economic, cultural, political and ecological) that grant access to resources to the communities making up an organisation. In this way, they create new relations among individuals, the community and certain resources, between the people and the state and between human beings and creation.


Examples of Common Goods

There is a worldwide movement towards Common Goods. Here are three examples:

Water. Popular movements for access to water and against privatisation have sprung up all over the world from South Africa, to Ghana, Colombia, Argentina and the Philippines.  They are rallying for water to be managed in a participative and democratic way so that it is available for all who need it. The European ‘Right to Water’ campaign has the same objectives.


Oil. In the Niger Delta, the Ijaw community[2] is insisting that the oil from their land becomes a Common Good.  Similar movements exist in Mexico (Chiapas), Ecuador and Colombia. Islamic economists are claiming for the Islamic community the ownership of and the right to regulate the oil fields that exist in Islamic regions.


A further example could be 'The Christian Commons’, a protestant initiative. It is a core of Christian texts that their owners have released under open license. This means that anyone wanting to use them for catechesis or theological reflection has the legal freedom to transform and use them without permission and without paying royalties.


Begoña Iñarra

AEFJN Executive Secretary

[1] See also Acts 4:32; 4:34.

[2] Kaiama Declaration 1998



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