The study examined approaches and experiences of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working with social and ecological re-habilitation of common pool resources (CPRs), specifically the Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme in India and the “area enclosures” programme in Tigray, Ethiopia. It involved comparative fieldresearch in the marginal, semi-arid project areas of N. M. Sadguru Water and Development Foundation (SWDF), Dahod District, Gujarat, India and the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), Wori Leke Woreda, Tigray, Ethiopia. A multidisciplinary team of practitioners and researchers carried out field observations, mapping and interviews with households and key informants in two villages from each of the project areas. Similarities were observed in histories of resource depletion through increasing economic pressures and institutional break-down, as well as present-day community-initiatives to revert negative trends. In both India and Ethiopia the government claimed ownership to the village commons, and in both situations people referred to lack of or unclear property rights and short-sighted CPR policies as the explanation for resource depletion. However, within similar institutional frameworks, local specific histories and empowerment processes shaped contrasting outcomes.