An Interview with Professor Howard Stein at the recent Conference on Land Policy in Africa | Land Portal

During the recent Conference on Land Policy in Africa, we had a chance to sit down and speak with Professor Howard Stein of the University of Michigan. Scroll below to read more.  

1) Can you tell us a little bit about your research, work and background? 

I have a PhD in development economics and have done economics all the way through my career.  Two of my degrees are from universities in Canada and my Doctoral degree was obtained in California.  During my Doctorate, I moved to Sussex University for a Doctoral Fellowship at IDS. Following my studies, I worked in a variety of countries.  My career essentially began in the 1980s with a two-year appointment teaching in the Economics Department at the University of Dar Es Salaam. I have been a professor at the University of Michigan since 2003.  I call myself an institutional economist with an emphasis on real-world studies.  My approach is generally different than many of my colleagues in the economics profession, who like to do mathematical modelling or use a dataset produced by others. That’s not my approach. I think statistical work is very important, but one that relies on data that you have gathered yourself and that you can trust. I believe any data collected should be supported and embedded in semi-structured interviews and is better informed by working with people in other disciplines. 

The main issues of our research dealing with land comes out of a project that began in 2008 with my colleagues Dr. Kelly Askew of the University of Michigan, Dr. Rie Odgaard of the Danish Institute of International Studies and Prof. Faustin Maganga of the University of Dar es Salaam (who has since moved to St. John’s University). The National Science Foundation in 2009 awarded us with a grant to look at the impact of property right formalization on poverty in Tanzania.  From the beginning, we used a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches.  We undertook very detailed household surveys and hundreds of semi-structured interviews with bankers, national government officials, local authorities, the World Bank and other donors, NGOs and others.  Our initial work was in the regions of Manyara and Mbeya. In 2009, in Manyara we accompanied a Ministry of Lands team when they were involved in a land titling pilot scheme supported by the World Bank. 

We presented our results to the Royal Danish Embassy in Dar in 2013. They were keen on learning about tilting (generating Certificates of Customary Rights of occupancy or CCROs) particularly after DANIDA agreed to sponsor a new land tenure support program in Morogoro with DFID and SIDA as part of the 2013 G8 agreement. The Embassy was very interested in extending our work to two regions where they had ongoing projects, Dodoma and Kigoma.  We utilized the same methodology and started with a baseline analysis (“first wave”) in all four regions which generated more than 2000 household surveys in 40 villages.  Our team subsequently returned subsequently to three regions Dodoma, Mbeya and Manyara for “wave two” studies (longitudinal analysis). For this purpose, we sampled a selection of the same households with the same questions four-five years after the first visits to evaluate the impact of titling.  The last “wave two” visits to Dodoma were undertaken in August, 2019.  In November, 2019, we started a new “wave one” set of household surveys in a fifth region, Iringa with support from the Mott Foundation.  

We are the only independent group that we know of in Tanzania, trying to see what impact titling is having on the ground.  Our study uses a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. We work closely with some professional statisticians at the university. In addition to focusing on titling, we are trying to document the dynamics of socio-economic transformation in the countryside aimed at measuring poverty, income inequality, landlessness, land ownershipGinis, rental markets, class formation, the age differentiation of the groups that are landless, etc. I would never say that our data is statistically representative for the whole country, but I do think it is getting closer to it.  In each case, we do random sampling of the households and it is statistically significant for each village. 


2) What aspects of this Conference have you found most interesting and thought-provoking? 

I thought that the subject of the Conference was somewhat misconceived. Land is an incredibly central issue in development, but its distribution and contribution to the livelihoods of people should be the central concern. Corruption is only one peripheral issue and is not readily solved by simply assigning private property rights which was an underlying theme in a number of panels. The focus on corruption comes from the history of structural adjustment policies and their failure.  I wrote a book on this in 2008 called “Beyond the World Bank Agenda”, which tracked the evolution of Africa focused policy in the Bank.  Instead of saying, there is something wrong with what we are doing, they kept inventing and adding new conditionality.  Eventually, they incorporated the idea of governance and corruption in Africa being the problem, rather than the entire policy framework and agenda that was misconceived. Unfortunately, these policies transformed the structure of African economies, and very much returned them to colonial type extraction while deindustrializing the continent.  Some of us predicted this in the early nineties in articles and books. This has created enormous dependence on international commodity markets that are largely beyond their control.  

This has implications to African land issues. The interest in African land from overseas is not only the search for alternative sources of food but it is also about biofuel production linked to oil prices. Biofuels are a substitute for oil and when prices rise this can lead to land grabbing in Africa.  There is also a great deal of interest by large agro-processing companies in finding ways to integrate African production into their accumulation strategies. In this context, there is a bias toward supporting large-scale investment in land or investor-led contract farming that can utilize their inputs and provide outputs for their global value chain networks. The private sector can play an important role in the rural economy. That is not the issue, but any scheme has to work for local people and not be extractive or shift the risks onto local farmers.  

Coming back to my earlier point. What are the really fundamental issues surrounding land in Africa? It is not really about corruption. It is about dispossession, growing landlessness, inequality of income, poverty, malnutrition, the continued lack of access to basic nutrition and clean water sources for millions in rural Africa. These are the things we have talked about for many decades, but this sometimes gets forgotten by the international community.  


3) Do you feel that there was a notable moment or key notable moments in the Conference? 

It is my understanding that the EU set this conference agenda a couple of years ago but not all panels focused on corruption.  There was a terrific panel the last morning of the conference that was not about corruption but about land related conflict and ethnicity.  Is titling reducing or exacerbating this conflict? Titling ends up putting another set of institutions that compete with existing rights. There can be a tension between customary rights and other social obligations and formal individual rights. For this reason, it is important to have conversations with anthropologists that understand this issue rather than neoclassical economists who see decision making as lying only with the individual.  According to the neoclassicals, we have to improve the rights of the individual so they can make efficient decisions.  This can be a terrible misrepresentation of how decisions are made in these villages.  I wish economists would spend a lot more time in villages.  They should do ethnographic studies with anthropologists to understand what is going on, on the ground.  Maybe then they would change their assumptions.  Instead, it is often: “look we can do good statistical work with clear deductive formulations.”  Sadly, when you begin to come up with policies that arise from those sets of constructs, you come up with very bad policies.  That has unfortunately been the history of policy formulation in African countries for far too long.  

To elaborate a bit, it is my view that the donors have been setting the agendas of research and policy for way too many years supported by economists on the African continent. Since the crisis years of the 80s and 90s, economics departments in Africa have increasingly adopted Western style neo-classical economics which has not arisen from research done on the continent. The approach has allowed them to tap into a steady source of money doing reports and consultancies for donors. That is not doing research for Africa.  I have observed these changes after many years of teaching, traveling and doing research on the continent.  It is very disturbing and I see what comes out of this. Part of the problem is that these agendas including the one for this meeting get set using extrinsic constructs and vested interests that drive the donor policy agendas. Economists and others at African agencies are in accord with little  contestation because they see the world in the same way.  That has been one of the main problems of the transformation of the economics profession in Africa.  


4) Do you think there is a role for Conferences such as the one we are currently attending, to play in combatting land corruption and corruption more generally? 

Conferences like this provide a great potential to improve our understanding of any topic not just corruption. I am for well-informed discussions and debates.  One of the things that was lost in this meeting was that there were some terrific talks and terrific papers on the high-level panels on the first day of the meetings but they were not integrated into the rest of the conference. You had a number of experts coming together here including, in my view, some of greatest thinkers on African land issues of the past 50 years.  There should have been more time for dialogue between this group and the rest of the participants in the meeting. They could have also assigned some of the experts to panels on the other days to provide feedback on research coming from all parts of Africa.  

I think it is important to have an opportunity for people to have a free voice to express their views, but it is also a missed opportunity if you don’t try to improve their understanding by tapping available expertise. One thing that I think is important at this and other conferences is the encouragement of independent research that’s been done on the ground to see what is going on particularly one that draws on multiple disciplines.    The insights you get from other disciplines really opens your eyes to the complexity of  outstanding problems and deepens your understanding of the issues when formulating policies. Meetings that encourage interdisciplinary conversations like this one are very valuable. 


5) Finally very quickly, what do you think are some of the impediments to fighting land corruption? 

The misconception is that corruption is the problem, not the symptom.  It is actually misplacing the emphasis.  To understand corruption you need to understand power dynamics and their manifestations. It is the unevenness of access to power and resources which generates opportunities for some and fewer or no opportunities for others. Understanding that dynamic is what is really important, not corruption.  One of the other issues that has been barely touched upon which is enormously challenging for Africa is climate change.  It is something we are starting to get into in our own research. Ultimately, though the dynamics of land access and usage should be the focus of meetings on land not a donor-generated agenda about corruption.   


Related content: 
Blog post

The session ”Exploring tools and approaches towards responsible youth and gender sensitive land governance and transparency in Africa” took place on November 27th, 2019 in the framework of the Conference on Land Policy in Africa and was organized by the Global Land Tool Network and the International Land Coalition. Land is both a source of livelihood and life line for most communities in Africa and is considered a strategic social and economic resource for communities in rural and urban areas.

Blog post

Cosmas Milton Ochieng, an expert in natural resource governance and economic development in Africa, is the Director of the African Natural Resource Centre at the African Development Bank.

In collaboration with the African Union Commission and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the African Development Bank will host the 3rd Edition of the Conference on Land Policy in Africa in Abidjan from 25 to 29 November 2019.

In this interview, Ochieng shares key insights into why the conference matters for Africa.


27 November 2019

African countries must act faster to purge corruption in the land sector by harnessing technology and innovation, African Development Bank Senior Vice President Charles Boamah urged on Monday.

Blog post
Côte d'Ivoire

Africa is a rich continent. It has vast agricultural and land resources and thus the potential to feed all people living on the continent. We observe technological improvements in agriculture, as well as in geospatial sciences and other relevant land sectors. Thus, the tools are available to implement policies to ensure fair and sustainable land policy in every country. However, there is still a considerable gap in what is proven to work and what is implemented in many countries.

Share this page