BOZEMAN – Iâ€™m spending the week at the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana. The director, Terry L. Anderson, is a pioneer in understanding the power of property rights to expand economic opportunity and growth. Property rights are taken for granted in the U.S, and disputes over property rights presume that a whole set of institutional arrangements that help secure these rights. Not so in sub-Saharan Africa, where land and property disputes are common because of a lack of land title and registration systems (and much else) that would protect the integrity of an ownerâ€™s claims. For many years, Terry has engaged the issue of property rights and Africa, especially in the area of wildlife protections. Wildlife sanctuaries and parks in Africa often suffer from encroachment by people living nearby and poaching is a common problem. My own studies of land-use and agriculture in Africa caught the interest of Terry and his colleagues who invited me to visit and share ideas. Happily, the PERC family is keenly interested in African problems. The importance of property rights to ordinary Africans cannot be understated. The establishment of clearer rights is not inconsistent with customary, or traditional land-use arrangements in Africa, and potentially carries a revelatory power to ignite economic growth and expand human freedom and economic justice. Many ordinary African farmers remain unable to fully develop their lands because of insecure rights to their use. Iâ€™m here to learn more about PERCâ€™s approach to land-use and property rights â€“ and find ways to apply these ideas to the African predicament.
Yesterday I made a presentation to PERC scholars, including Terry, on the state of property rights in Africa. I drew on examples from Uganda, Malawi, Ghana and Cameroon. Some excerpts from my talk:
â€œAfrica is large. Land is a comparative advantage, relative to the rest of the world. Yet the advantages to Africa of its relatively cheap and plentiful land are virtually cancelled out by the failure of Africans to construct a system of property rights and thus gain the benefits of such rights in the form of markets for land and property.â€
â€œThe lack of clear, written and recorded property rights mean conflicts over land and its use are common in Africa. Indeed, perhaps no other single factor fuels so much conflict in Africa as conflict over access and ownership of land.â€ â€œAid donors ignore the issue of property rights (and that may be a blessing). The subject of property rights gets scant attention in Africa, obscured by seemingly more urgent debates over hunger, disease and violent conflict. Curiously, donors fund a lot of projects in Africa but none on land titling and land registration and virtually none on land
redistribution. Thatâ€™s partly because many donors are European and they are ambivalent about promoting markets in Africa.â€
â€œWith the breakdown of the African state in recent decades, traditional authorities and customary rules have been re-legitimized. African governments are no longer trying to dismantle these traditional arrangements; the state is often trying to bolster its own contested credibility by latching on to the growing appreciation of tribal leaders and ethnic customs. The trouble is that customary land ownership has many shortcomings and offers none of the benefits of private ownership.â€
â€œThe ordinary African is usually trapped between coercive national governments and traditional authorities when it comes to asserting control over his land.â€