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The professional specialization of Rexford Ahene, professor of economics and business and coordinator of Africana studies, is the connection between land and the growth of markets. His scholarship in this area has led to a deeper understanding of the complex and changing relationship between local land institutions and the state.

Because of his unique knowledge on these issues, Ahene has been invited by several international development organizations, including the World Bank, the United Nations, and USAID to serve as a policy adviser to such countries as Botswana, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, Ghana, and Malawi.

Last year, Ahene presented research at the World Bank Institute, Washington, D.C., which was broadcast to Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia, and South Africa. He published an article, “Land Reform in Southern Africa: Malawi Case Study and Recommendations” in Oxford Analytica in September 2003.

During the 1993-94 academic year he was on leave for a semester to work as a policy adviser to the government of Tanzania. He designed and implemented a $1.6 million land reform project funded by the World Bank. Following the success of Tanzania project, the World Bank invited him in 1995 to join an assessment team to evaluate Malawi’s economic programs.

Malawi was a former British colony that gained independence in 1964 and was ruled by the dictator Dr. Kamuzu Banda until 1992. It adopted multiparty parliamentary democracy in 1994, and although the political situation has remained stable, Malawi’s economic performance is poor. A small, landlocked country of 9.8 million people, it is one of the world’s poorest countries and faces a number of problems. Malawi’s major export products are tobacco, tea, and sugar, but with declining world demand for tobacco and declining prices of tea, the economy experienced declining real growth. Frequent crop failures regularly threaten the maize crop, the country’s staple food source. Poor macroeconomic policy decisions have left it deeply indebted to international lenders and the current inflation rate is 12 percent per annum. It is estimated that about 15 percent of the population is infected with HIV, malnutrition is widespread, literacy is low, and infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world.

Ahene’s role in Malawi’s development project is to rationalize land policies to promote economic growth. His first task was to review existing land laws and conduct a series of land utilization studies in the traditional and commercial agricultural sectors, as well as official land management policies on government-owned lands. Ahene returned to Malawi in 2000 to synthesize the results and develop a new comprehensive land policy, which was approved in January 2001. The World Bank committed $26 million to implement the recommended reforms.

In a country with so many obvious problems, why does land reform take center stage? Ahene explains that as African countries move toward market-oriented democracies they often fail to recognize existing informal and traditional property rights. Although such rights are not officially recognized, they are socially powerful institutions and the social basis of informal ownership is clearly defined by long-standing customs, rules, and regulations that people within the community accept and respect. Land reform must recognize these customs, but also allow for official sanction and protection.

One of the most fundamental principles of market capitalism is that enhanced protection of property rights increases the incentives to invest in and improve the productivity of property. Because property rights increase the certainty of ownership, owners are more willing to make investments in buildings, equipment, infrastructure, and land conservation measures. Perhaps more importantly, clearly defined rights of ownership encourage the operation of land markets and the allocation mechanism. If the market is allowed to operate, innovative and energetic farmers will be able to acquire more land. Less productive farmers will have less land. The result is a higher aggregate output.

In most African countries, property rights in land tend to be held informally so that the land cannot enter the formal marketplace and move from less to more productive owners. Although the benefits of clearly defined property rights are clearly established in the West, they have not been attained in Africa. And in some instances, poorly designed land reform projects, such as that in Zimbabwe, were counterproductive and resulted in economic meltdown.

Ahene still works indirectly with the government of Malawi and the international donor community to develop and implement a number of projects. He believes his relationship will continue for the foreseeable future. More than $67 million in development assistance has been committed for surveying and title registration over the next 10 years. In addition, other land development and poverty alleviation projects are being designed to encourage the effective use of land. Ahene is confident that the implementation of these policies will bring some relief.

“I share the conviction,” he says, “that land offers endless opportunities for economic development and discovery. It is the ultimate source of wealth and the missing catalyst in Africa’s transition.”

Ahene received a bachelor’s degree in real estate from University of Science and Technology, Kumansi, Ghana; a master’s in economics from Virginia State University; and a masters in agricultural economics and Ph.D. in urban land policy from University of Wisconsin.

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