The impact of land property rights interventions on investment and agricultural productivity in developing countries: a systematic review

Publication Details

Lawry, S., Samii, C., Hall, R., Leopold, A., Hornby, D. and Mtero, F. (2014). The impact of land property rights interventions on investment and agricultural productivity in developing countries: a systematic review, 3ie Systematic Review Report 14. London: International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie)

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Steven Lawry, Cyrus Samii, Ruth Hall, Aaron Leopold, Donna Hornby, Farai Mtero
East Asia and Pacific (includes South East Asia), South Asia, Europe and CIS, Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean
Agriculture and Rural Development
Agricultural Reform, Agricultural Credit, Rural Land Reform, Rural Livelihoods
Equity Focus
Review Type
Effectiveness review

Main findings

Headline Findings: a summary statement

Tenure formalisation has produced significant gains in agricultural productivity in Latin America and Asia and more limited productivity gains in Africa. However, productivity gains may take time to become apparent, the effects may vary substantially across cases, and they may be dependent on other supportive conditions, such as performance of credit, input and product markets.

Evidence Base

Twenty studies met the inclusion criteria for the quantitative synthesis, and nine for the qualitative synthesis. Of the quantitative studies, eight were located in sub-Saharan Africa, six in East Asia, five in South America and one in India. Of the nine qualitative studies, seven were conducted in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, one study focused on Peru and one on Vietnam. All included studies assessed the effects of freehold titling. The authors were unable to identify eligible studies on the effects of statutory recognition of customary tenure arrangements on investment or productivity.

Implications for policy and practice

The quantitative analysis found that freehold titling and other forms of rights formalisation were followed by positive gains in productivity and investment for the title recipients (around 40 percent productivity gains, on average), although gains were significantly greater in non- African contexts. The average effect on welfare, as measured by income or consumption, was an increase of about 15 percent, on average. The authors suggest that increases in perceived tenure security and long-term investment are credible channels through which tenure recognition contributed to welfare for those who received titles. They find no support for the hypothesis that access to credit is an important channel through which tenure recognition improves welfare, although they note the evidence base is very thin. 

Contextual analysis found that productivity effects in Africa are significantly lower than those in Asia and Latin America and that magnitude of the productivity effect rises with income. To explain these regional differences, the authors propose the idea of an ‘Africa effect’, based on the fact that most farms in sub-Saharan Africa are held under customary tenure arrangements, which generally provide long-term tenure security to qualified members of land-holding families, groups or communities. Customary tenure may therefore provide a level of pre-existing tenure security without formalisation, something that is not typical in Latin America or elsewhere. The potential benefits from formalisation may therefore be more limited. Alternatively, the low levels of wealth and income among African farming families, in comparison with those in Latin America or Asia, may constrain them from making the investments in their land following titling that are needed to improve productivity. However, due to the strong correlation between income level and being African, the authors are unable to say to what extent smaller productivity gains in Africa are a result of this proposed ‘Africa effect’, the result of lower wealth, or both. 

The qualitative findings present a diverse range of positive and negative experiences, which may result from freehold titling and which are often unexplored in the quantitative studies. Unlike the quantitative studies that focus on outcomes for titling beneficiaries only, the qualitative studies report on outcomes for both the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of titling programmes. The qualitative evidence indicates that tenure interventions can have important impacts on a range of outcomes, that these impacts may be considerable and unpredictable, and that these interventions may in some instances have negative consequences, such as displacement or diminished property rights for women.

Implications for further research

The authors identify three key areas requiring further research: 

  • The relationships between household wealth, income, customary tenure and investment in agriculture in Africa 
  • The effects of tenure recognition on women’s tenure security, particularly in comparison with the customary tenure arrangements replaced by tenure recognition in Africa 
  • The effects of statutory recognition of customary tenure arrangements, as well as community-based titling, on investment and productivity at the farm level and on the management and productivity of natural resources used in common


The livelihoods of millions of farmers in low- and middle-income countries rely on secure access to productive land. However, many smallholder farmers hold customary rights to their land that have not been accorded legal status by their country’s property-rights structure. Secure land tenure provides the poor with greater incentives to invest in their land in order to produce greater returns, without fear of its being seized by authorities. As a result, securing land rights can be considered a key part of strategies to reduce poverty, particularly among women and disadvantaged groups. Two potential methods of strengthening property rights include conversion of communal or non-demarcated rural land to freehold title or statutory recognition and codification of customary or communal rural land rights. Existing evidence on the impact of tenure-recognition policies on productivity and farmer welfare is mixed and scattered across contexts, and no known systematic review or meta-analysis on this relationship has been undertaken to date.

Research objectives

Authors’ stated objectives: 1. To understand the quantitative and qualitative impacts of interventions to strengthen land property rights on agricultural and livelihood outcomes in rural areas of low- and middle-income countries. 2. To assess whether these effects are different for men and women and under what circumstances. 3. To assess specific mechanisms that enable or limit productivity improvement (barriers and facilitators).


For the quantitative synthesis, the authors include randomised experiments and quasi-experimental designs. To be included, quasi-experimental designs had to employ strategies for causal identification and use some method for removing biases due to non-random assignment of treatment. All studies had to assess the impact of either conversion to freehold title or statutory recognition of land rights on at least one of the intermediate or final outcomes of interest, including productivity of land use; welfare in terms of income, consumption or poverty; and measures of gender-based welfare. The authors included published studies and grey literature, which measured the outcomes of interest between 1980 and 2012 in a low- or middle-income country. They searched online databases,including Econlit, CAB Abstracts and Web of Science; grey-literature databases, such as Open Grey; and databases of relevant institutions. They also conducted bibliographic snowballing and hand searches of 27 key journals. They coded quantitative studies in terms of risk of bias in estimating impacts, using the International Development Coordinating Group (IDCG) Risk of Bias Tool for their assessment. Due to high heterogeneity in effect sizes between studies, they used random-effects meta-analysis and random-effects meta-regression on moderator variables.

They designed the qualitative criteria to identify studies that could provide context and address questions of how and why interventions may or may not have been successful and for which groups. They chose studies using a two-stage screening process to determine eligibility based on the Critical Skills Appraisal Programme (CASP) tool. This involved similar criteria to the quantitative search, albeit with different methodological requirements. They synthesised findings using an aggregative meta-summary methodology, which focused broadly on the quantitative identification of qualitative results.

Quality assessment

The authors have clear inclusion criteria, a comprehensive search and use appropriate criteria to assess risk of bias. Their methods of analysis are clear for both the quantitative and qualitative synthesis and they discuss causes of heterogeneity of findings at length. The review has some limitations however, in that there was not independent data extraction by two reviewers and the authors did not contact subject experts for additional studies. Finally, the authors do not provide a list of excluded studies. However these limitations are partly mitigated by the authors acknowledging some of the limitations of the review.

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