“The evolutionary theory of land rights as applied to Sub-Saharan Africa: a critical assessment”

The evolutionary theory of land rights can be considered the dominant framework of analysis used by mainstream economists to assess the land tenure situation in developing countries, and to make predictions about its evolution. A central tenet of this theory is that under the joint impact of increasing population pressure and market integration, land rights spontaneously evolve towards rising individualization and that this evolution eventually leads rights holders to press for the creation of duly formalized private property rights — a demand to which the state will have an incentive to respond. This article looks critically at the relevance of the evolutionary theory of land rights as currently applied to Sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, the question of whether the establishment of private property rights is an advisable structural reform in the present circumstances is examined, in the light of evidence accumulated so far. It will be argued that most of the beneficial effects usually ascribed to such a reform are grossly over-estimated and that, given its high cost, it is generally advisable to look for more appropriate solutions that rely on existing informal mechanisms at community level.
Platteau, Jean-Philippe
Source publication: 
Development and Change 27: 29–86