The Evolutionary Theory of Land Rights as Applied to Sub-Saharan Africa: A Critical Assessment


  • Jean-Philippe Platteau

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      Jean-Philippe Platteau is professor of economics at the University of Namur (Rempart de la Vierge 8, B-5000 Namur, Belgium) where he is an active member of the Centre de Recherche en Economie du Developpement (CRED). He is the author of several books (including a recent publication from Oxford University Press, co-authored by Jean-Marie Baland, on the problems of village-level common property resources) and numerous articles in academic journals. He has devoted most of his time to analysing institutional issues arising in developing countries, with an emphasis on the role of informal arrangements and their potential for dynamic adjustment, particularly in the context of rural areas.


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 theoryis that under the joint impact of increasing population pressure and market integration, land rights spontaneously evolve towards rising individualization and that this evolutioneventually leads rightsholders 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 establishmentof private property rights is an advisable structural reform in the present circumstancesis 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.