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Understanding urban land markets in West Africa

Alain Durand-Lasserve's picture
Also available in: Français

The difficulty of acceessing land, and a growing number of land disputes, have become major concerns in West African cities. In spite of political will expressed at the highest level of government, policymakers are often at a loss as to what can be done given the complexity and sensitivity of land market issues.

The first step toward a solution is to understand the functioning of land markets in West African cities, which are characterized by land rights pluralism. Existing studies have tended to limit their focus to formal land markets as the only option for improving land tenure security. Such a restrictive approach does not explain why 60—80 percent of city residents actually live in informal settlements where land tenure is insecure.  Nor can it shed light on the challenges faced by cities in the region: uncontrolled spatial expansion; very weak tenure security of agricultural landholders in peri-urban areas and in the rural hinterland (where customary forms of tenure remain predominant); increasing scarcity of public land reserves that cannot continue to supply land for housing to accompany urban growth as in previous decades; and increased prevalence and frequency of land-related conflicts, which may induce political instability.

With these questions in mind, the book presents an analytical framework relevant for West African cities, and three main conclusions that can be drawn:

  1. Informal markets are actually key to accessing land; they are not anarchic
    Informal land markets are essential for those who want to access land for housing, invest their savings, or make capital gains. It is also much simpler to participate in informal rather than formal land markets, and land prices are inversely correlated with the degree of tenure informality. The study also shows how a large share of the land plots ultimately traded on the formal market were initially offered for sale on the informal market.
  2. Method matters: a systemic analysis is required to understand the linkages between different markets
    In order to study the different markets and the linkages between these markets, the authors propose a new method based on a systemic analysis. Interviews with a large number of land stakeholders about their practices, combined with a comparison between the rules issued by public authorities and the actual practices, made it possible to understand the numerous transformations incurred when land is offered for sale—including those related to land tenure. The authors describe these transformations along three “land delivery channels”: customary, formal public, and private. The linkages and the competition occurring between these channels are presented in the description of the land system. This systemic view can show, for instance, how the development of the formal market—though still limited—goes hand in hand with large purchases of agricultural land in the peri-urban area of ​​Bamako and its rural hinterland, and pushes up the price of land. A quantitative survey on a large sample of land plots transferred over the previous three years in the peri-urban areas and rural hinterland of Bamako also brings important insights into the role of the different stakeholders and makes it possible to quantify the spatial extension of markets.
  3. The proposed method could be replicated in other West African cities
    The advantage of the proposed method goes beyond the description of the land delivery system in Bamako and its large periphery. It poses an appropriate methodological framework for a detailed analysis of households’ strategies for gaining access to land and of the barriers that they face. It also helps identify the determinants of land prices, taking into account the diversity of land tenure forms that coexist. The proposed approach can thus be of great use for policy making, which requires a detailed understanding of land access mechanisms.
Beyond the specific case of Bamako, the analysis could be used in other West African cities where several sources of land rights legitimacy coexist and where a large number of stakeholders operate, irrespective of whether these stakeholders are recognized by land administrations that are often undermined by corruption and whose decisions may prove contradictory. 

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  • Durand-Lasserve, A., M. Durand-Lasserve and H. SELOD (2015) Land Delivery Systems in West African Cities. The Example of Bamako, Mali. Washington, DC: World Bank and Agence Française de Développement, 133 pages.

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