The economic institutions that keep Sierra Leone poor are not just national. Most people in Sierra Leone still live in villages, and their lives are governed by chiefs. Chiefs raise taxes, hire the local police, dispense justice and control the most important resource in rural Sierra Leone today – land. The chiefs are the “custodians of the land” which in effect means that they decide who gets what. Here are two imposing Paramount Chiefs photographed in the 1980s, Madam Yatta K. Saffawab II and M.K. Mustapha Ngebeb IV (from “Portriats of Paramount Chiefs of Sierra Leone”, by Vera Viditz-Ward and Roslyn A Walker, Smithsonian, 1990).

Only economic institutions that guarantee some degree of property rights, so that people know that they will be able to reap the benefits of their investments and efforts, will generate prosperity. But there are no property rights to land in rural Sierra Leone — at least not in the sense that we understand it in the United States. Nobody has a written title, though some dynasties and families do have traditional user rights to use certain pieces of land. Most out of luck are “strangers” meaning anyone not born in a particular chiefdom (like say the two of us in Cambridge, Massachusetts). A stranger has to “beg” (the word the Sierra Leoneans use) for land and even if he or she gets it they cannot plant any perennial crops, like bananas, cocoa, coffee or oil palm because this would be tantamount to trying to establish de facto property rights on the land. Jim once asked a chief in Kono district what would happen if a stranger tried to grow coffee or oil palm. “We’d come and cut it down” he said. During the same visit as the chief was showing off his plantations of cocoa, Jim asked (rather naively in retrospect) “for example, how did you get the right to use this land?” “That man used to farm it and he gave it to me” said the chief, pointing out a man on the other side of the road. “What would have happened if he hadn’t given it to you he asked” (again rather naively) to which he got the rather puzzled question back “why wouldn’t he give it to me, I’m the chief?”.

Lack of property rights and arbitrary allocation of land, without regards to who will be more productive in using it, are not the only extractive institutions in rural Sierra Leone. The perennial extractive economic institution, labor coercion, is also widespread. Chiefs also use their power to coerce youths to work for them on their plantations and in building roads and other local public goods.

So what comes out from decades of repression and lack of economic opportunities at the local level, and blatant thievery at the national level? We’ll see in our next blog.


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