March 15, 2014 • No 320 | Archives | Search QL | Subscribe



Private and Communal Property Rights in the Developing World
by Harry Valentine

The concept of property rights lies at the core of entrepreneurship, individuals taking initiative, production, productivity, and freedom of trade. There is a marked difference in the interpretation of property rights across the developing world, where private and communal property rights co-exist within the same countries. Private individuals who participate in private charities that provide assistance to people who live in the developing world often encounter the local interpretation of property rights and often attempt to impose a more Western interpretation of property rights. Such conflict usually occurs where communal instead of private property rights prevail. Here are a few examples.

Donated Tools

An acquaintance developed an interest in helping disadvantaged people who lived in a developing nation. Being distrustful of organizations that use a high-pressure approach to raising money for overseas causes, the acquaintance organized a small private group to visit an African nation where people tilled the soil with sticks before planting food crops. The group bought durable gardening hand tools to ease the work of the overseas locals, who received them warmly. They were quite unfamiliar with agricultural hand tools, but after some brief demonstrations, the overseas locals became familiar with how to use them.

However, they let the children play with the hand tools. As a result, some tools disappeared while others were damaged. Members of the group were dismayed that local adults did nothing to restrain the children or reprimand them in any way. When it came time to prepare the ground to plant edible crops, they went back to using the tried and true method of using sticks to till the ground. The overseas group only recognized communal property rights; the concept of private property rights was entirely foreign to them.

Water Harvest

Entrepreneurs and inventors developed a method of installing a fine mesh screen across coastal mountain valleys in Peru and Chile, where prevailing winds carried moisture inland from the ocean. Water droplets from the wind would condense on the fine mesh and drip down to a channel that led to a storage dam. While fog or dew fences like these can provide a steady supply of fresh water, they also require periodic repair and maintenance. In an environment of communal property rights, though, nobody took responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the fences that extracted water from the mist. The communal fog/dew fences fell into disrepair and local governments arranged for trucks to periodically deliver water to affected communities.


“Several African editors and intellectuals have condemned government-to-government foreign aid as being unproductive, serving as a means by which foreign donor governments acquire political influence within local governments.”


Some private charity groups have chosen to provide clean water to select African communities by digging a well or by drilling into the ground to install a pipe that connects to a hand- or foot-powered water pump. In most cases, the villagers were sufficiently sensible to forbid children from playing with the water pumps. As long as a pump remains functional, a village has a supply of clean water. But outside groups often arrange for pump repair and maintenance.

However, some private owners installed fog/dew fences that supplied water to private dams to provide water for livestock and agricultural production on privately owned farms. They repaired and maintained their water fences or replaced the mesh when the original mesh was beyond repair or when a later design could extract more water from the incoming, moisture-laden winds. The result is that in some South American and African locations, wealthy farmers may live and operate farms in close proximity to communities where residents adhere to the idea of communal property, including growing food crops as a community.

Envy and Property Rights

Some African communities do recognize the idea of private property rights, at least for men. A man living in a nation like Malawi may own a piece of land where he may grow crops and build a house for his family. As long as he is alive, his closest male relatives will respect his property rights. However, should he pass away before his eldest son reaches the local age of manhood, his closest male relatives of his generation will assert property rights over his home and land, including evicting the widow and her children.

Private groups from overseas have periodically donated agricultural tools to small landowners in the developing world who recognized the concept of property rights. The hand tools increased productivity and the small farmers had more to sell at harvest time, sometimes using the extra income to buy additional land and to later buy animal-powered tools that further helped increase output. But their success can often breed envy, sometimes from within their own tribal group, or from members of another tribe. In some cases, a donation of food to fellow citizens eases the discontent.

Differences in agricultural productivity between groups that uphold communal property rights and groups that uphold private property rights have given rise to ethnic tensions in several regions of Africa. The genocide in Rwanda began when opportunistic community leaders and politicians began accusing the more productive tribe of somehow cheating the less productive tribe. There was ethnic unrest between two tribes in Kenya, partially the result of members of one tribe being more productive than members of another tribe. The more productive tribe was alleged to have had some unfair advantage over the less productive tribe.

Foreign Aid and Secession

Much of South America speaks Spanish and evolved from Spanish colonialism. Little ethnic tension prevails within national boundaries, the result of Spanish colonials having developed family connections with the local indigenous people. African national boundaries originate from the colonial era, forcing multiple tribes to live inside invented individual nations. Secession from colonial boundaries may lead to future domestic peace, in southern Sudan for example. However, the idea of self-determination through secession from colonial boundaries and the emergence of smaller nations across Africa and elsewhere internationally has little support among foreign aid donor nations, or among other nations either.

Several African editors and intellectuals have condemned government-to-government foreign aid as being unproductive, serving as a means by which foreign donor governments acquire political influence within local governments. It can be a means by which a donor government opens markets for products from politically favoured industries. World economic conditions forced the UK government to curtail foreign aid to some African nations, perhaps the beginning of a trend that may spread to include other donor nations. A curtailing of foreign aid combined with the precedent in southern Sudan could encourage secession discussions across the developing world.


Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.


From the same author

Forcible Coercion and Socialized Medicine
(no 319 – February 15, 2014)

Seeking Privacy in an Age of Increased Eavesdropping
(no 319 – February 15, 2014)

Subsidy-Free City Passenger Transportation Services in the Developing World
(no 318 – January 15, 2014)

Cape Town's District Six: People's Survival and Progress in a Politically Oppressed Community
(no 318 – January 15, 2014)

Welfare, Education, and the Appeal of Gangs in American Cities
(no 317 – December 15, 2013)



First written appearance of the word 'liberty,' circa 2300 B.C.


Le Québécois Libre Promoting individual liberty, free markets and voluntary cooperation since 1998.


Current Issue | Other articles by Harry Valentine | Comments? Questions? | Index No 320
QL Archives | Search QL | Subscribe | What is libertarianism? | Who are we? | Reprint Policy | QL on Facebook