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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Reforming Land Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa: Issues of Efficiency and Equity

Structural adjustment programmes typically promote the privatization of publicly-held assets and encourage support for the market economy in the interests of economic efficiency. This paper examines the implications for efficiency and equity of the privatization of common property and the formalization of individualized land rights in sub-Saharan Africa.

The author presents persuasive theoretical and empirical evidence indicating that efforts to formalize and enforce private land rights in Africa will not necessarily result in increased agricultural production or reduced environmental degradation. At the same time, the adverse social impacts of such proposed land rights reforms are potentially severe. He first examines the case of common property resources, which, as the paper indicates, are usually regulated in both formal and nonformal ways. Transfer of villagelevel common property to state ownership has rarely been successful because effective government supervision is much more difficult than communitylevel regulation. However, privatization of lands currently held by the state does not guarantee an improved outcome: private property rights may be very difficult to establish and enforce and, in the absence of perfect and competitive markets, individuals losing access to land because of privatization arrangements are unlikely to be adequately compensated. In addition, experience shows that private land owners often use their land less efficiently than do community managers: if they buy land for speculative purposes they may either leave it idle or overexploit it in order to move their capital quickly into other lucrative investment opportunities.

The paper next examines the question of whether the trend toward individualized land rights, which is evolving in much of Africa, should be further stimulated and supported by state intervention. It has been argued that, in theory, such individualization provides incentives for agricultural investment, gives farmers access to credit, reduces fragmentation of land holdings, and reduces conflicts over land. However, evidence from Africa indicates that such potential benefits are rarely realized: land registration commonly increases uncertainty and conflict over land rights, especially for groups which customarily had nonformal access to natural resources; the educational, economic and political élites are generally able to benefit disproportionately from land titling; and the little credit generated by formal land ownership is seldom used for productive investment.

The author argues for a pragmatic approach to land tenure in Africa that emphasizes the role of the local community and recognizes the value and flexibility of indigenous arrangements. The role of the state should thus be primarily to facilitate and co-ordinate the informal management systems operating at the local level, taking a more active approach where necessary because of inter-community conflicts or because local practices involve high efficiency or equity costs.
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  • Pub. Date: 1 Mar 1995
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD