The Persistence of the Commons: Economic Theory and Community Decision-Making on Land Tenure in Voi , Kenya

by Ellen M. Bassett


Projects to secure land rights for the urban poor have been implemented in Sub-Saharan Africa for thirty years. A recurrent issue is providing sustainable land tenure for settlement residents/project beneficiaries. Commonly, individual titles have been used. Often recipients sell their land rights to more affluent city dwellers, exacerbating the growth of slums. Policymakers are investigating alternative tenure forms including community-based institutions. This paper presents a project in Kenya in which the Community Land Trust (CLT) model was used to provide tenure security as part of a settlement improvement project. The paper seeks to understand community decision-making on land tenure and why settlement residents selected a group or community-based title option over individual title when one theoretical perspective on property rights in Africa, the Evolutionary Theory of Land Rights, would predict a preference for individual ownership. The case study was constructed from qualitative interviews with settlement residents, coupled with informant interviews and document/archival analysis. The paper argues that Voi residents’ decision to hold land together reflected their perception of themselves as a powerless group vulnerable to losing land to outsiders. The community, moreover, had a history of shared action to defend their land holdings that served to establish a level of trust which made the group tenure a possibility. The paper concludes that the decision to hold land together was entirely rational – a collective institution better served to protect their individual self-interest than the individual institution predicted by the ETLR. The Voi case underlines the notion that “history matters” in institutional analysis – to really understand institutional change we must understand the embedded context of decision-makers. The study also supports the perspective that there is no one-size fits all approach to land tenure. Policymakers should strive to provide a range of tenure options that can fit the context of the specific community.

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Ellen M. Bassett is an Assistant Professor in the Urban and Regional Planning Program at Michigan State University. Prior to her appointment at MSU she lived and worked for 10 years in East Africa, including serving as an urban planner with the Small Towns Development Project whose settlement upgrading initiative is the subject of this paper. Her international research interests lie in the area of land tenure, informal settlement upgrading, and environmental management.