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From possession to property: how the commodification of land affects youth participation in farming in Ghana

With the gradual transition from the customary possession of land to property ownership based on a capitalistic logic, customary lands in the Techiman[1] area in Ghana have been commercialised and are failing to fulfil their traditional role as essential stepping stone for the youth to initial economic independence. Gertrude Aputiik argues that, contrary to mainstream assertions of the youth being disinterested in farming, difficulty accessing agrarian resources (land) could be seen as the major cause of poor participation of the youth in farming.

Clearing of agricultural land for construction in Techiman, Ghana. Photo taken by the author in August 2020

‘Possession’ and ‘property’ are two categories of institutional systems linked to land ownership. While rules on land possession are often inaccurately equated with property rules, there is a clear distinction between these two types of ownership rights. Possession rules refer to those regulating the material use and yield of resources, production technologies, products, and waste (Gerber and Steppacher 2017). In contrast, property rules are linked to property ownership and titles that enable land markets and credit transactions of land (when used as collateral). Property can be seen as the core institution of capitalism and as its institutional driving force (Hodgson 2015). This point has also been made by Hernando de Soto (2000), one of the most influential defenders of formal property rights, who said that for a modern property system to be fully operational, it must form a unified institutional system at the national level.

Thus, while both can be actualised in parallel – a plot of land for example can be inhabited (possessed) and at the same time used as collateral (owned as property) – the potential of property as financial asset to safeguard financial security strongly affects (non-)adherence to customary logics. More and more land is commercialised and traded, and customary land is declining. However, contrary to the belief that property ownership will automatically have beneficial effects, this transition to land ownership linked to market transactions seems to work only for a few powerful groups and individuals who are able to pay for land at market prices. Others are struggling to navigate this unequal system, including youths in Ghana.

In Techiman in Ghana, the reinterpretation of customary norms has led to a transition to property of Stool[2] lands that were hitherto managed following logic of possession based on the material use of the land. Rapid urbanisation in Ghana has led to increased demand for land; as a result, a widespread conversion of agricultural land into land for commercial use can be observed.

As part of my research on the commodification of land in peri-urban Techiman and its implications for youth participation in farming, I interviewed youths in Techiman in 2020. I observed that youths are struggling to get access to land despite their readiness to pursue farming on a full-time basis. In an interview, one of the youths described their plight:

“Since lands have become more and more costly, we have had no other choice than to move out of the town to work and pay for the small farm lands we can afford. It is also difficult to cultivate food crops these days, since landowners now demand that we cultivate cash crops on their farms.” (young male farm tenant, Techiman, 13 August 2020)

Beyond the high costs of land, the extract above also highlights the extent to which young farmers have limited agency in pursuing farming activities. Farming to them has now become just another opportunity to sell their labour power for survival and it is almost impossible to even decide the “when”, “how” and “what” of farming. Based on this finding, I argue that, contrary to mainstream assertions of the youth being disinterested in farming, difficulty accessing agrarian resources (land) could be seen as the major cause of poor participation of the youth in farming. This is the basic reason explaining why many of the young agriculturalists in the Techiman area are tenants with only limited farming rights.

The scholarly debates on customary land tenure in Sub-Saharan Africa in many ways have revealed the intensification of land commodification in peri-urban areas (Akaateba 2019). However, an elaborate analysis of the different transitory phases of this process is missing. One of my research objectives was to fill this gap by identifying some of the key phases in the transition from customary norms – possession – to market procedures in Techiman – property. In my findings, I identified four stages in the commodification process (Figure 1). The first stage corresponds to a fully customary system (no link to land markets). Gradually, chiefs started renting out lands in exchange for money (second stage). In the third stage, there is a shift from renting out lands to the outright sale of lands, albeit with no property titles, so informally. The final stage refers to the full commodification of land.

Operations under a property-based logic suggest that buyers would not only assume full ownership of lands, but also that they are entitled to use these lands as collateral for obtaining credit. A commodified system is strikingly unfavourable to smallholders. Unable to compete with wealthy farmers and entrepreneurs, smallholders are often prevented from accessing communal lands. My observations thus echo Frans Benda-Beckman’s critique of de Soto, who said:

That formal property rights and free market for it to circulate under conditions of great economic and political inequality should work to the benefit of the poor is wishful thinking to me. I think that it is scandalous that the political aspects of property and the issue of redistribution are so downplayed [by de Soto].” (Von Brenda-Beckmann, 2003: 190)

In Techiman, the transition has not (yet) reached the final stage of a full commodification; yet, it is clear that the commodification process is already threatening the livelihoods of young farmers. Some authors have argued that even under a fully customary system, youth access to land has been impeded by the customary structure of land ownership, basing their argument on the fact that access modes such as inheritance only favour indigenous youths (Kiddido et al., 2017). While this indeed presents a challenge to the youth that has no access rights in any landholding family, customary landholding arrangements in which there is equal access rights could represent an egalitarian possession-based land system that provides more just and secured farming livelihoods for the youth.

The author wishes to thank Julien-Francois Gerber for his comments on an earlier version of the post.


Footnotes

[1] The case of Techiman is unique in many ways. Predominantly occupied by youth farmers and a small rural population, the region still remains the largest producer of Ghana’s food and cash crops. It is also widely known for the presence of what is believed to be the biggest market in West Africa. Customary lands, called Stool lands in the Techiman area, served as essential building blocks for the youth to start an independent economic life.

[2] They are called “Stool lands” because chiefs who are custodians over communal  lands,  sit on specially carved stools as a symbol of chiefly authority.


References

Akaateba, M.A., 2019. The politics of customary land rights transformation in peri-urban Ghana: Powers of exclusion in the era of land commodification. Land Use Policy88, p.104197.

De Soto, H., 2000. The mystery of capital: Why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else. Civitas Books.

Gerber, J.F. and Veuthey, S., 2011. Possession versus property in a tree plantation socioenvironmental conflict in Southern Cameroon. Society & Natural Resources24(8), pp.831-848.

Kidido, J.K., Bugri, J.T. and Kasanga, R.K., 2017. Youth agricultural land access dimensions and emerging challenges under the customary tenure system in Ghana: evidence from Techiman area. Journal of Land and Rural Studies5(2), pp.140-163.

GSS (2013) Ghana in figures. Accra, Ghana. Available at : https://eros.usgs.gov/westafrica/land-cover/land-use-and-land-cover-trends-west-africa (Assessed : 6 April, 2021)

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Gertrude Aputiik is a graduate from the Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies major at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Her research interest lies in areas of Political Ecology, Post-development studies, and Degrowth.

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How do grassroots networks in Kenya tackle violence against children?

In the absence of state infrastructure, grassroots networks play a crucial role in addressing the prevalence of violence against children in Kenya. How do these networks work and how can they be supported to overcome their challenges?

In much of Africa, where the state plays a limited role in preventing child vulnerability and in-service provision, grassroots informal community-based networks play an important role in addressing violence against children (VAC). I draw on research carried out in 2019-20 with Civsource Africa that focused on the role of different types of networks on the prevention of violence against children in Kenya, showing that while different actors at different levels are networked in the prevention of VAC, grassroots networks are on the front line of preventing and responding to this violence.

However, our research notes that there are challenges in the functionality of these networks, including in the way they interact with other more formal networks working to prevent VAC. These issues need to be addressed, taking care that grassroots networks do not lose their unique identity.

How do grassroots networks work?

Networks are conceptualised as interconnected webs of actors, pooling together for mutual reciprocity in addressing VAC. In our research, there were formal and structured networks that comprised non-state actors like NGOs and other state institutions such as Kenya’s Department of Children Services, the Ministry of Health and actors in the court system.

At the community level, the unstructured grassroots networks included individual community volunteers, child protection volunteers, community-based organisations and community health workers. They also include community-based paralegals, who support children and caregivers in legal redress, as well as opinion leaders who are consulted in issues of violence against children.

These grassroots individuals and groups either worked separately within their communities or were networked with other actors, to whom they reported to or referred issues of child protection. For example, they were working with local community leaders in charge of sub-counties (known as chiefs), the Department of Children’s Services, the Ministry of health, the police and with different NGOs.

Some of these grassroots actors worked as appendages to the state system of child protection. For example, child protection volunteers are selected by the community but vetted by the Children Office and are expected to monitor issues of violence in the community and report to the Children Officers. The community health workers are appointed and vetted by the community during meetings known as Barazas. While some worked independently, they were part of the Ministry of Health strategy for delivering services to the grassroots and therefore expected to take up issues of child abuse and violence and referral to appropriate services. Being selected by the community reinforces the codes of trust that make them accountable to the local population. These actors were therefore expected to give periodic reports on VAC through public meetings.

The financing and capacity arrangements of these structures are diverse. For example, the community-based networks pool together their resources and energy to carry out dialogue in the community and follow up after cases of VAC. Some of them receive funding from the organisations they are affiliated with. Some volunteers working with the NGOs were receiving training, small funding for targeted activities and transport to follow up after cases of VAC. Some of the volunteers and CBOs were also working with several organisations at the same time.

 

The benefits of community networks

Working independently or through other structures, these grassroots networks of community volunteers build the resilience of children by training them on their rights, offering psychosocial support and identifying cases of violence. They also build bonds that make it easier to address violence, by encouraging the development of positive norms and an ethos of child protection through dialogue on responsibility towards children. They also enhance the community’s collective efficacy in caring for their children through training on income generating activities. The grassroots actors also build bridges by connecting children with the police and other leaders who enforce laws, and probation and children officers who ensure state child protection.

Vertical collaborations with larger networks addressing violence against children enables these networks to draw synergies since some NGOs provide services addressing structural causes of VAC. For example, a CBO in an informal settlement in Nairobi noted that one of the NGOs supported the development of a community VAC alert system. Such collaboration ensures that effort in violence prevention is not just a local exercise but is connected at different nodes, thus ensuring that broader interventions are based on children’s everyday experiences of violence. For example, the child protection volunteers are part of the local Children Area Advisory Council, which is part of the National Council for Children Services, the highest oversight body on children’s issues.

These networks are homegrown and rely on community trust relations and, therefore, enhance faster dissemination of information on VAC at the grassroots level. They also act as first responders or what is seen as the first mile on issues of violence against children in their communities.

Similarly, our research finds that grassroots actors are acknowledged by other actors such as the police, children’s officers and local administrations, who listen to them. This validation is important in accountability to children’s rights since it might help the grassroots actors to check for excesses by such leaders when handling issues of violence, without fear of reprisals.

Overall, these simultaneously local and place-based, vertically integrated and culturally competent responses to violence emerged as important in addressing violence against children. They also, however, face challenges.

Challenges the networks face in addressing violence against children

Due to a lack of adequate resources, including for transport and in some cases support to children facing violence, our research found that some volunteers stopped following up after cases of violence. While some were receiving support from other organisations, most of them used their own resources; some of the larger networks they work with often rely on donor funding and so, when funding ceases, the NGOs moved on, breaking the VAC referral pathways. The NGOs that participated in the research explained that community volunteers are not remunerated since they were seen as serving their communities.

In cases where community-based networks were linked to other structured networks, the playing field was uneven. The volunteers felt that they only participated nominally in these networks and were being ‘used’ as cogs by providing their services and information for writing grants, and then ‘dumped’ after the NGOs received them. This should also be seen through the lens of the philanthropy-wide shifts in Africa where funders require NGOs to demonstrate that they are working with community structures, which supports van Stapele’s research in Kenya where community based organisations characterised the relationship with NGOs as colonialist and saw themselves as ‘donkeys’, engaged in drudgery for the NGOs’ benefit.

In our research, the grassroot actors reported that, to get even, they would hoard information or register their own organisations to access the largesse of donor funds. Such tensions weaken the synergies that would accrue from networking, ultimately affecting efforts to address violence against children.

Even more, while proximity to the community is a resource, it also has a downside; some volunteers reported that they are victimised by the perpetrators of violence.

How to support grassroots networks

Grassroots networks in Kenya play an important role in preventing violence against children, and their work can be a basis for testing innovative models in child protection, and take to scale the prevention of VAC, and therefore they need to be supported. Care should, however, be taken so that systems in these networks that rely on trust are enabled to respond to violence without being undermined.

Efforts should also be made to ensure that collaborations are not only geared towards meeting the needs of external catalysts, such as NGOs, without tangible benefits for children. Further, these networks should not be co-opted into donor funding cycles which may not allow space for innovation because of their short-term and competing motivations.

To address the skewed power dynamics between actors, there is a need for strengthening the accountability of these grassroots organisations, as this will enhance accountability to the community and ultimately to children. There is an imperative for revisiting the very terms on which these organisations are crowded in by other actors.


 This post is an output from LSE’s Centre for Public Authority and International Development at the LSE’s Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa and first appeared here

About the author:

Elizabeth Ngutuku has a PhD in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her work investigates young people’s experience of poverty, vulnerability, citizenship claims and sexual and reproductive health.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.