Why Libertarians could focus on Land Rights – especially in Africa.

written by Marina Brierley

Demographic changes in world population reveal that Africa is the continent that will see most growth in the future. By 2050 half of Sub-Saharan Africa will be under 25 years old, according to World Bank statistics. The median age in the continent currently (2022) is 20, 43 in Europe.  Prevailing birth rates show the average woman in Africa has 4.4 children, in Europe 1.6 and even in  Asia, including the giants of India and China it has reduced to 2.2. For these reasons it is estimated that by 2050 – when the population is likely to be 9.7 billion, nearly 3 billion of those people will be African – 30% of the world, trebling the current number.

Therefore, it is a humanitarian imperative that African nations develop so that all these people enjoy food security, a decent standard of living, job opportunities and the prospect of living purposeful,  productive lives. In the process, eradicating absolute poverty and disease. It is not an impossible vision. The continent has immense natural resources, much of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land is in Africa, its people have the same potential to become successful as in other countries and there is no doubting the energy and dynamism of its youthful population. Only political obstacles stand in the way of progress.

One must consider – for a moment, the dire possible consequences of failure to develop. The anger,  frustration and alienation of millions of impoverished young people cut off from the global economy. Their potential to resort to violence, terrorism and ultimately, desperate migration. In short, a burgeoning youth population that has no purpose or opportunities is a possible threat to world peace and a staggering waste of human capital.

While many of us believe in open borders and welcome hard-working migrants it should not be necessary, nor is it desirable, for vast numbers to emigrate. African nations could be transformed –  to the benefit of all, not least declining Western economies reinvigorated with competition from fresh, innovative talent that trade with flourishing new African industries could provide. The West needs and welcomes African prosperity!

It is so heartening to see the herculean efforts of freedom-loving Ugandans, Nigerians, Sudanese,  Ghanaians, Kenyans, Tanzanians, Burundians and others promote and spread the liberating message of free markets, entrepreneurship, self-ownership, rule of law and property rights that will transform their economies into the prosperous societies they could be. It is of course their fight, though we in  the West can offer a little bit of strategic help.

How can libertarians, who believe in the equal freedom of every human and understand that only that concept will achieve prosperity for all, utilise their philosophy to best effect? Different thinkers have their own individual responses to that question. Many focus on education, trying to alter the climate of opinion – an undoubtedly worthy quest, particularly as a long term objective.

Another approach (for those of us who are older, impatient and want to see results in the short term) is to focus on achieving property rights – especially Land Rights. This can be achieved at a very local level – village by village, family by family. If just one individual gains a land title, thereby  gaining a secure home and the prospect of a livelihood, isn’t that a game-changer for life – and a  worthy goal of freedom lovers? We wish to see a free-er world in all our respective nations, but seeing one poor person become better off is still an achievement. After all, in the developing world  it can literally mean the difference between life and death.

Libertarians agree that property rights – over one’s own body, the fruits of one’s labour, the right to have businesses and keep justly acquired profits or wages are essential to a successful market economy and general prosperity. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 58% of the population are  rural, mostly engaged in farming, it is land ownership that is crucial to progress. In Africa secure title to one’s land, even when it may have been held by a family for generations, is sadly lacking.

Hernando de Soto in ‘The Mystery of Capital’ informs us that a title confers on land the potential to  transform it from a mere physical resource to an asset capable of generating capital. The advantages, for individual landholders, of such titling are many and profound.

  • Ability to start businesses using land as collateral to raise money.
  • Potential to grow more or greater variety of crops, thus increasing its value.
  • Decreased likelihood of evictions- either by the state or ‘land grabbers’.
  • Ability to pass on land to children.
  • Possibility to continue occupying land without resorting to bribery.
  • Improves status of landholders and enables them to obtain utilities – such as water,  electricity, sewerage, further increasing value.
  • Encourages freedom of mobility- allowing landowners to move where work is available,  without fear of losing land through absence.

Land titling on its own however, is not a panacea for the ills of developing economies. Secure property rights of all kinds need to happen in an environment of respect for law generally, a sound

judicial system which protects individual rights, minimal bureaucratic regulations and taxes and the absence of conflict. Focus must address all of these where possible but land rights is a worthy start.

So what benefits accrue to communities and societies at large with just this focus?  One can identify several.

  • The reduction of conflict between competing landowners. Settlement of land issues is a  great facilitator of peace in a community. This is even more urgent with growing populations and subsequent increased demand for land. Especially if land becomes even more scarce with rising sea levels.
  • Secure land ownership promotes food security. Owners are more likely to invest in ways to  make agriculture more productive. Inward investment is also more likely without the threat of arbitrary confiscation.
  • Land ownership encourages resource conservation since owners have vested interest in improving their land’s value. They are more likely to conserve water, optimise soil, plant more trees, thus mitigating effects of climate change. In Niger, secure land tenure has resulted in 5 million hectares of land being regenerated, 40% of arable land in that region becoming significantly greener, including former deserts, according to USAID research. A  magnificent positive achievement, to be lauded and emulated.

The theoretical and practical justification for land rights then is well established. But how can it be achieved? Let us look at some successful examples across Africa.

In South Africa the ‘Khaya Lam’ (My Home) project has seen some success attaining titles for the  poor in SA, initiated by the Free Market Foundation. Even with minimal land, recognising title to  humble shacks has transformed the lives of individuals concerned. Once even a shack becomes a  capital asset it is developed and in the process the title holders move away from poverty. By 2021  over 20,000 land titles have been attained for South African families.

How was this done? Gaining the support of law firms – responsible for conveyancing – was crucial.  Agreeing to significantly lower their fees helped and the contributions of sponsors – individuals and companies, made fees affordable to even the very poorest. Businesses agreed to help as they saw that there would be increased prosperity from titling as more people entered the formal economy,

thus providing more potential customers. A win-win scenario. FMF worked to establish partnerships between themselves, private sponsors and local authorities, much like ALED (Action for Liberty and Economic Development) is also doing in Uganda. Their OBWANANYINI KUTAKA  campaign, seeking to uphold land rights for women, is beginning to see some success – to the credit of its hard-working activists.

The Khaya Lam project in SA began with a pilot programme of 11,000 unregistered houses, with an average value of $3,340. Many of those being humble shacks with low valuations. However, their accumulated value represented $36.7 million of tradable property, which can leverage considerable economic growth. This explains de Soto’s point that the poor are not really so poor, they just need to capitalise the assets they already have. (To his credit, de Soto is currently working with  marginalised, indigenous people of the Amazon in his native Peru, where he is fighting for their  land rights against mining companies colluding with their government to dispossess these native  peoples.)

Another, even more successful land rights programme has taken place in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory  Coast). Here the work has been initiated by the Audace Instit Afrique, (AIA) a partner of Atlas  Network. Like most productive initiatives they began at the grass roots level, operating within

villages first, a ‘bottoms up’ approach, advocated by the influential development writer – William  Easterly, and increasingly, the World Bank, supposedly working to alleviate poverty.

Using GPS they created village maps and produced a smartphone app that downloaded existing certificates and rental agreements. Village land committees were trained in the use of GPS and physical archiving. They issued rights and lease certificates based on customary ownership which all agreed upon. A vital component of this approach was a partnership with the National Chamber of Kings and Traditional Chiefs which linked customary practices and modern approaches. Gaining the support of the chiefs was vital – such ‘Old Witnesses’ were often the only record keepers of land users and had the authority to settle local disputes.

A similar initiative has seen success for land titling among the forest tribal peoples of India, who for centuries had no rights to the land they worked. However, with assistance of grassroots organisations, supported by Liberty International (along with Google who provided satellite images of land usage) the result has been game-changing for these people. (Beautifully presented by Johan  Norberg in ‘India Awakes’, a film produced by the Free to Choose Network.)

Such examples should give hope to freedom lovers in African nations that there are demonstrably proven ways to achieve land rights for the poorest in society – a vital first step towards prosperity.  We cannot change the whole world in our lifetimes but we could work towards achieving some rights for some people – family by family, village by village. Surely a goal worth pursuing.

This article is part of a longer one held by ALED with further suggestions for advancing land rights in Uganda. It also includes my extensive references (texts, articles and You Tube videos) with comments. Accessed here.