Female ownership of land is not a panacea in developing countries

By Ralitza Dimova

            Contrary to conventional wisdom, giving ownership rights on land to women may not be a welfare enhancing panacea in poor agricultural settings. When women have less access to complementary resources such as credit, labour or marketing channels than men, female ownership of land alone would not help them enter into productivity enhancing agricultural sectors and generate income in such sectors. If women control land, while men control all remaining resources – and asset ownership is insecure in an environment of market and institutional imperfections – the outcome for the household as a whole is likely to be negative.

These are the key findings of a new publication by Ralitza Dimova, Sumon Bhaumik and Ira Gang in the Journal of Development Studies. We find that in matrilineal societies in Malawi, where user and control rights over land are in the hands of women:

  • Cultivation of high value crops increases household welfare.
  • The likelihood of high value crop cultivation by households increases with the extent of land owned by men.
  • Income generated from high value crop production decreases with the amount of land owned by women.

High value crops and entitlement failure

In the context of agriculture-based less-developed economies it has long been argued that movement out of subsistence farming into commercial (or high value crop) production is a promising way out of poverty, and that establishing secure property rights on land is an important ingredient in this transition. Prioritising the allocation of land to women has been seen as an important ingredient in policy agendas, aimed at enhancing household welfare though female economic empowerment.

Even as gender sensitive asset allocation policies are pursued, it is well understood that there is widespread entitlement failure, which makes it difficult to translate capabilities and asset ownership into higher earnings. A specific example of such entitlement failure is the inability of households to participate in the production of high value crops, which could increase their income and hence their welfare. This form of entitlement failure is especially acute among women, either due to the absence of customary or formal rights on land, or due to difficulties in enforcing such rights on land as a result of a complex set of economic, social or cultural factors.

Resource ownership in Malawi

We conducted a study of rural Malawi where high value crops, such as tobacco and groundnuts, have been considered to be welfare enhancing. The Malawian rural landscape is particularly interesting because it is characterised by patrilineal and matrilineal land tenure systems. Matrilineal kinship places ownership and control rights on land in the hands of women and provides women with a degree of economic security. However, this economic security can be challenged (for instance, by maternal uncles) and is not matched by complementary resources, such as access to capital and hired labour. We hypothesised in our study that uncertain property rights may reduce households’ willingness to invest in cash crops, while paucity of complementary resources is likely to be a barrier to generating income from high value agriculture in matrilineal societies.

Table 1: Ethnic groups in Malawi, based on Census data

Ethnic group Persons % Classification referred to by Berge et al (2003)
Chewa 4252204 32.6 Matrilineal
Lomwe 2288285 17.6 Matrilineal
Yao 1760843 13.5 Matrilineal
Ngoni 1492850 11.5 Matrilineal
Tumbuka 1152017 8.8 Patrilineal
Njanja 754410 5.8 Matrilineal
Sena 467958 3.6 Patrilineal
Tonga 270833 2.1 Patrilineal
Ngonde (Nkhonde) 129914 1.0 Patrilineal
Lambya 59452 0.5 Patrilineal
Senga 24366 0.2
Nyakyusa 18751 0.1 Patrilineal
Other 357615 2.7
Total 13029498

Source: Berge, E. et al (2003). Lineage and land reforms in Malawi. Norwegian Centre for Land Tenure Studies.

Female land ownership: is it a panacea?

Using rich representative data from Malawi, our paper explores the effect of land owned by men and women on the probability for the household to enter the higher value cash crop sector and the actual income generated in that sector. We make a distinction between:

  • social norm driven land tenure, proxied by whether the household belongs to a matrilineal or a patrilineal kinship group.
  • the actual amount of land operated by either men or women in each of these two communities.

The paper then explores the implications of cash crop adoption and cash crop income on household welfare. The results indicate that although cash crop production unquestionably enhances household welfare and reduces the probability of the household to be poor, female land ownership is not a panacea. Not only does de facto male ownership of land enhance the probability of the household to enter the cash crop sector, especially in the context of matrilineal societies, but also land ownership by women reduces the income generated from cash crop production. We explain this finding with the absence of complementary resources, such as access to capital and hired labour by women. In other words, while women’s ownership of assets (such as land) may be a necessary condition for both female empowerment and enhanced household welfare, on its own it cannot guarantee either of these objectives.

The policy implication is that female ownership of assets cannot be approached in a piecemeal manner. A wider and more holistic approach needs to be adopted. In particular, should asset ownership by women be pursued as a policy agenda, it needs to be complemented with a pursuit of better access of women to capital, hired labour and marketing channels. For the reform to be successful, it would also be important to assure that social norms are well aligned with enhanced female empowerment.

Social accountability or social transformation? Working ‘with’ and ‘against’ the grain

By Sophie King

Social accountability has become an important ‘buzzword’ among development actors seeking to understand the forms of state-society relations that may be supportive of better public services. Malena and McNeil (2010: 1) define it as: ‘the broad range of actions and mechanisms beyond voting that citizens can use to hold the state to account’. The trouble is that the focus has become the mechanisms, rather than the inequality and social and political relationships shaping public goods expenditure and quality.

Some findings from my own research into NGO-led social accountability initiatives in rural Ugandaresonate with those recently published by Care International and ODI about community score card initiatives in Malawi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania. However, our interpretations of what these findings tell us may differ. Drawing on my Uganda study, but also a systematic review of how context shapes outcomes from social accountability initiatives, here are some questions which those seeking to intervene within agrarian, neopatrimonial and semi-authoritarian contexts like Uganda’s could consider:

  1. What is the history of state-society relations and popular mobilisation in this context?

The Rwenzori sub-region, where this fieldwork took place, had a long history of ethnic and religious conflict, leading to the exclusion of particular groups from social services and economic opportunities, and a legacy of resentment, which continues to shape both political and civil society relations. Civil servants are often not socially embedded within the community, being subject to frequent transfers – meaning they are not subject to informal accountability pressures on the basis of kinship or longer-term relationships. Decades of conflict and authoritarianism and state monopoly over cooperative production, followed by the collapse of the cooperative sector, has left a legacy of deference to authority and mistrust of collective action. 

  1. What is the socio-economic status of the breadth of people using the public service in question, and what relationships do they have with other social groups?

In this particular region, some of the poorest families did not send their children to school, wealthier households made use of private provision, and the socio-economic spectrum of small-scale farmers, labourers, and traders in between used state services. Few would be educated beyond primary level. In Uganda as a whole, only approximately 12 percent of school-aged children complete secondary education.  Mechanisms for social accountability require parents and service users to report problems to a community management committee, head teachers, or their village council chairperson. The village chair also presides over land transactions and the village court, while those educated enough to work as head teachers, nurses, or to occupy leadership positions, are often friends. There is also a strongly entrenched culture of conflict avoidance, which was partly linked to concerns about the use of witchcraft in response to perceived slights. This is an unpromising context for monitoring, reporting or complaint.

  1. What are the formal and informal institutional incentive structures throughout the service delivery system?

In Uganda, a system of ‘inflationary patronage’ – where ever-increasing amounts of resources are required to keep different power bases in society happy – depletes resources for public goods. Levy and Waltonprovide a helpful framework for analysing the web of relationships that shape incentive systems within particular sectoral machineries. In rural western Uganda, teachers and health workers are on low salaries and experience frequent delays in receipt of salary, with few prospects for professional development. In cases of wrong-doing, District officials simply transfer workers elsewhere, rather than enforce sanctions. MPs and councillors are focused on votes garnered through favour and the cultivation of connections to extensive kinship networks, and are not usually interested in rocking boats.

  1. Over which public goods has a strong social contract emerged among citizens? How have the terms of delivery of particular services been framed?

Universal Primary Education has been framed in Uganda as a gift from the President. Where once parents kept schools running during Amin’s reign of terror, in rural western Uganda, few parents are now prepared to contribute anything to the running of the school and have interpreted the policy – framed in populist terms in advance of successive elections – as meaning that everything about school attendance is free. Children go to school without lunch, falling asleep in lessons after eating nothing all day; buildings and premises are not maintained; children lack books and pencils to work with; and PTAs – in this area at least – were all but defunct.

  1. What forms of autonomous collective agency exist among low-income groups in this context, and are there any examples of effective collective organising specific to this context?

In such a context, where social stratification, unequal power relations and adverse incentive structures work so strongly against inclusive development expenditure and downwards accountability, those interested in changing things for the benefit of lower-income groups cannot think about service accountability in a vacuum. While shifts within the wider political settlement and wider structural transformation are of course critical to substantive change, there is still much that can be done at the grassroots to build democracy from below.

With the landholdings of middle- and low- income groups shrinking in Uganda while those of the higher socio-economic groups increase, and the great African land-grab continuing seemingly unabated, it seems to me that smallholder farmers can only accumulate the socio-economic and associated political power to advance their interests in social provisioning terms by acting collectively. Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union is an inspirational example of what can be achieved when farmers adopt a social justice and savings-based approach to social, economic and political change.  Smallholders here are transforming relations between men and women; between farmers and the state; and between farmers, traders and buyers. Ben Jones also describes a range of associational forms that are alive and well in Uganda, including clan structures, Pentecostal churches, and burial societies. Other forms of self-help group are increasingly present in rural villages and a gradual revival of the cooperative sector is taking place… can smallholders be supported to exploit these opportunities in progressive and inclusive ways, or will such opportunities be lost to competition and clientelism?

  1. What is the history of external intervention in this context and what opportunities exist for accountable alliances to be built between professionals and low-income groups?

That donor-driven development interventions have frequently undermined rather than catalysed and strengthened grassroots agency and autonomy is surely no longer in question. So the question now becomes what forms of intervention can offer marginalised and low-income groups support and solidarity without creating dependency or reinforcing clientelist relations?

One Ugandan research and development institute I worked with had moved away from channelling donor aid and towards information provision, knowledge generation, networking and relationship building, convening alternative spaces for multi-stakeholder dialogue, and attempting to convene channels through which context-specific grassroots experiences could reach senior decision-makers. This was only possible with the partnership of a Northern co-financing agency with the room for manoeuvre to create space for experimentation over the long term. This agency’s financing has been seriously cut, in response to negative public attitudes to aid.

Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union have had guidance from an activist-consultant for over a decade, who has supported them to develop their own home-grown gender justice methodology without becoming directive. The BJCU Coordinator has been adept at managing relationships with external actors – taking loans not grants, or only accepting donor aid in support of those in extreme poverty, or for international learning exchange. Mitlin and Satterthwaite offer another case study of how IIED have worked with Shack/Slum Dwellers International and donor agencies to break down the hierarchy of donor aid. There are many good examples out there.

In summary, perhaps as well as ‘working with the grain’ and working through elites, we need to think about how to integrate such strategies, with a focus on strong, value-driven local associations that also have tangible economic benefits for their members. Associations that can federate, that can ally with professionals while remaining autonomous, and that can have the kinds of ripple effects that, as an increasing number of studies are beginning to show, can contribute towards building democracy from below. This requires arethinking of the role of external actors in such contexts, and new modalities of aid and development finance, but it also, critically, requires a change in public attitudes internationally.

How do Rural Labour Markets Respond to Shocks?

By Ralitza Dimova

The occupational portfolio choice of small farmers in rural environments is among the most high profile areas of research and policy debate in development economics. One key focus area is the choice between relatively risk-free – though less profitable – activities such as subsistence farming and higher-risk and higher return activities like livestock and cash crop production. The consensus is that relatively asset-poor and risk-averse households are likely to opt for subsistence farming and out of higher value cash crop alternatives, thus potentially going down the slope of further destitution. By contrast, off-farm (especially non-agricultural) labour market opportunities tend to be seen as an escape route for farmers out of poverty, especially in the event of shocks. However, most of the related literature highlights lack of availability of such opportunities for households that have failed to reach a certain wealth and education threshold.  In both cases, the policy advice is in favour of asset reallocation from relatively wealthier to relatively asset poor households.

The paper on Off-farm labour supply and correlated shocks: New theoretical insights and evidence from Malawi, published by Ralitza Dimova and co-authors in the January 2015 issue of Economic Development and Cultural Change challenges this policy consensus. The paper explores intriguing cases of labour market dynamics in the face of correlated shocks – namely shocks experienced by the majority of households in a village – and examines cases of deepening poverty even when there are no obvious barriers to entry in the off-farm labour market.

The starting point of the analysis is the phenomenon of off-farm ganyu labour in Malawi, namely low skill and poorly remunerated labour that farmers supply off their own farms. Approximately half of the rural people in the country supply ganyu labour and there are virtually no other (better remunerated) off-farm job opportunities in the rural areas. To learn more about the ganyu market, we build a theoretical model that explores labour allocation of farmers between low risk and low return food crops (such as maize), higher risk and high return cash crops like tobacco and groundnuts and off-farm ganyu labour. The main focus is on identifying the determinants of these livelihood choices and exploring the general equilibrium (demand and supply) conditions of the ganyu labour market in the event of correlated shocks, namely shocks in the form of drought, flood or pest that affect all villagers simultaneously.

In keeping with historical analyses on Malawi, the statistics presented in Figure 1a indicate that land distribution is very skewed: while large farmers (plantations) hold average land sizes of approximately 40 hectares, smaller farmers (in the first and second quintiles of the land distribution) are practically landless, while even farmers in the fourth quintile hold average land sizes of approximately 5 hectares.

 Figure 1a: Land distribution in Malawi

land in malawi

Source: Authors’ calculations, based on the Second Integrated Household Survey on Malawi

Larger land endowments are a key determinant of entry into the higher risk, but significantly more profitable cash crop market, especially that for tobacco and groundnuts. For instance, the statistics in Figure 1b indicate that while almost none of the farmers in the lowest quintile of the land distribution is involved in tobacco production, approximately 30% of the farmers in the highest quintile produce tobacco. Similarly, approximately half of the largest farmers produce groundnuts, while only 20% of the smallest farmers are involved in the production of this cash crop.

Figure 1b: Crop choice of farmers by quintiles in the land distribution

crop choices malawi

The most interesting finding from our rigorous theoretical and econometric analysis is that while during shock- free periods, smaller and asset poor farmers are by default reliant on the (low return) off-farm ganyu market and larger farmers are large buyers of ganyu labour, the situation changes dramatically in the event of a shock. Large farmers, who have opted for the more profitable and higher risk cash crops (the production of which is more likely to be affected by a negative shock) are disproportionately affected by the natural disaster. They have no other choice but to leave their own farm production, reduce the intake of ganyu labour and enter the low skill and low return ganyu labour market themselves. This leads to a reduction of ganyu wages, which – in turn – reduces the number of hours supplied by smaller farmers.

Our theoretical results, backed by evidence from Malawi, provide at least some ground for re-thinking policy advice. On the one hand, we observe that larger land endowments do not ensure better off households against risk in uncertainty ridden environments. On the other hand, we find evidence that challenges the consensus of much of the focus of the off-farm labour literature that dismantling entry barriers to the off-farm market may be a panacea to poverty and income inequality. This may indeed be a viable prescription in contexts where good non-farm jobs exist and there are high (wealth related) access barriers to these jobs. However, we find that even when there are no barriers to entry, the off-farm labour market may still struggle to provide successful consumption smoothing and poverty alleviating occupational alternatives to poor farmers. In such conditions, direct interventions as in the case of public works programs could be a preferable policy agenda.