There are three reasons why land policies in Africa are attracting greater amounts of attention. First, it is recognized that enhancing smallholder productivity is critical for sustainable and broad-based growth as well as poverty reduction (World Bank 2007). However, land-related investment, technology adoption, establishment of processing, markets, and value chains, all are unlikely to come about unless land tenure is secure. Moreover, increased productivity will be capitalized in land values and unless explicit attention is devoted to traditional land rights and land access by weaker groups, in particular women, interventions aiming to increase agricultural productivity may have negative social consequences. This is particularly relevant in contexts where current interpretations of customary systems define women's rights only through their relationship with men and women are often unable to inherit land which is considered the property of their husband's lineage. Negative implications for productivity can be severe, in particular if, as almost everywhere, women make a major contribution to agricultural production and its management.
Second, demand for land, and in many cases land prices, have vastly increased with population growth, urbanization, and overall economic development. While higher land values makes land registration more rewarding, leaving land rights undefined increases the risk of having them appropriated by outsiders in a way that may neither be consistent with principles of equity nor conducive to the most productive use of this resource.
Third, in a decentralized setting, land administration can not only help provide public goods and improve government finance but also that are rural areas will not develop based on agriculture alone. Nonagricultural development will imply migration of households out of agriculture that requires secure land rights so as to allow transfer of land rights, either through rental on a temporary basis or through sale, to others who are able to make more effective use of it without the fear of losing it. In many cases, this is now complemented by demand for land by investors who want to use it for food production, bio-fuels, or in anticipation of carbon payments has increased significantly in the wake of recent commodity price booms. It has highlighted that, without clear processes to process requests or assign of land rights, land acquisition by outsiders may end up fostering corruption and leading to inequality and dispossession of traditional land users rather than as a positive force for growth.
This paper examines the theories identifying channels through which land rights can affect socioeconomic outcomes, points to realities which often prevent such effects from materializing, summarizes quantitative evidence on the actual impact of land registration interventions to assess the validity of theoretical arguments, and derives conclusions that can help guide applied work in this area. An example from Ethiopia is used to illustrate the potentially far-reaching impacts of ‘new' models of formalizing land rights and a number of policy conclusions are drawn.