The importance of securing property rights in Africa -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The importance of securing property rights in Africa

By Dr Sandra Joireman

In the mid-1990s I spent some time doing fieldwork in Ethiopia to examine how patterns of land tenure changed over time. It was quite exciting to go out to remote areas and talk to farmers about their crops and whether they felt secure enough in their control over their land to make improvements. I remember one farmer whom I spoke with in the Sidamo area who was very angry because his neighbor had planted coffee and other tree crops on his land. The farmer saw this as his neighbor’s attempt to eventually take the land from him. From the farmer’s point of view, if his neighbor put the trees on his land and they matured, everyone would think that the land belonged to his neighbor and not to him. Without any form of documentation, which neither man had, the boundary between the two properties was a matter of the word of one farmer against another, and the presence of mature tree crops might tilt the balance in favor of his neighbor.

Both men were doing what they could to make a living from land they expected to occupy for a long time, yet the absence of clear property rights led to conflict between them. Property rights refer to the ability of an individual or group to control the use of land, houses or other goods. Secure property rights are essential for economic development to take place in a community. If you own a house you are careful with its upkeep, much more careful than if you rented a house and someone else was responsible for the decisions regarding its use and maintenance. Poor people around the world need secure property rights in order to gain from investment in their land and houses as well as to get the financial benefit available to them through mortgaging or rental. Although the poor may have resources such as houses and land, they often don’t have the title or legal documents that would enable them to gain the ability to rent or mortgage their property or effectively prove that it belongs to them. In other words they have insecure property rights.

Throughout the developing world, governments are attempting to refine law so that it protects the property rights of the poor. In Uganda, for example, under the new Land Act people who hold land without title now have a legal process that they can follow to convert land that was held under a customary legal system into titled land which they can then mortgage. However, this legal process is still too costly for many and one can find throughout the country examples of land sales that occur without the necessary formal documentation. In Namibia, the Married Persons Equality Act of 1996 gave women the right to their husband’s property after his death — an idea that is quite new in that country.

Writing new laws is the first step in promoting secure property rights for the poor, but it is insufficient to bring about change. Enforcement of those laws and educating people regarding their content and impact is a second and equally important step.[1] In Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, changes in property law also need to be sensitive to the absence of joint ownership of marital property in most cultures and countries. Particular efforts need to be made to ensure that both women and men have secure property rights so that the economic benefits of ownership are secured for families and for the future of widows after their husbands die, or orphans when their parents pass away.

Secure property rights go a long way toward promoting economic development and the long-term security of families, and they can also reduce conflicts between neighbors and within communities that result from a lack of clarity with regard to the ownership of important resources.

I am working on a research project on property rights through two Habitat offices in Kenya and Ghana. Through this work I hope to determine what can be done to effectively obtain and enforce more secure property rights in both urban and rural Africa.

Dr. Sandra Joireman is an associate professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College. Through HFHI’s International Volunteer Program, two Wheaton student interns will be working with Dr. Joireman’s research project on property rights, while also working with Habitat for Humanity.


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[1] After the new Land Act passed in Uganda there was a widespread educational campaign to teach people about their rights. The campaign included seminars and educational efforts by NGOS, promotional printed materials distributed by the government and radio advertisements telling people about different aspects of the law.

Successful components of any educational program would include both written materials and radio or television spots designed to reach the illiterate. It is also very important to ensure that civil servants in any associated bureaucratic office from the police to the land titling officials and the judiciary are well trained when the new law goes into effect so that there is less confusion regarding new rights and obligations under the law.