Land certification and schooling in rural Ethiopia

The number of land certification programmes around the world has been growing. In theory, the formalization of land rights should increase land tenure security, which in turn should increase incentives to invest, allow easier access to credit, and facilitate the development of land markets (Besley 1995; de Soto 2000). Land is often the most important household asset in rural areas  as access to and control over land permeate other areas of household decision-making. We investigate the impact of a land certification programme in the rural Amhara region of Ethiopia on children’s schooling and labour.

Why land titling affects child schooling and labour

The few existing studies on urban land titling programmes in Latin America suggest that formalization of land ownership rights free up child time, which leads to a decrease in child labour (Field 2007; Moura et al. 2009) and an increase in children’s education (Galiani and Schargrodsky 2010).

Our study, presented at UNU-WIDER's Human capital and growth conference focuses on improved rights to transfer land from parents to children, a mechanism that has not previously received much attention. In rural Amhara the likely heir of land is the eldest son. We theorize that a higher probability to transfer land to the eldest son can reduce the son’s incentives to acquire education, while it should encourage schooling for other children. The effect of land certification on schooling and child labour may vary depending on birth order, land productivity, and perception of land rights.

The land certification programme in Amhara

Land in Ethiopia is owned by the state, meaning the land certification programme in Amhara formalizes user rights over demarcated pieces of land. Historically land has been redistributed periodically and rights to plots have been conditional on working the land. A number of law changes have strengthened land user rights. These new rights are universal; however, due to capacity limitations, the land certification programme was gradually rolled-out. This created a variation in the timing of the arrival of the programme to the kebele (village), which we use to identify the impact on schooling and child labour.

We study two regions of Amhara with different agro-climatic conditions: East Gojjam (favourable conditions) and South Wollo (less favourable conditions). Using household panel data, we compare variation in the trend of school enrollment, grade progress, as well as labour supply of children and eldest sons before and after the arrival of the programme across earlier and later treated villages and birth order.

School enrolment improved

We find that the programme has a positive effect on school enrollment in general (Congdon-Fors et al. (2015) present results also for girls). In East Gojjam the results suggest a similar effect for oldest sons and other boys, while in South Wollo increased enrolment applies in particular to the oldest son. With land rights being perceived as less secure in South Wollo, without the programme in place parents might to a larger extent have felt obliged to keep their oldest son on the land to secure continued access to the land. In this sense, the results in South Wollo are similar to the results found in the previous studies focused on urban areas. In East Gojjam where land is more productive, staying on the land might be perceived as the most profitable option for the oldest son.

The grade progress of eldest sons deteriorated

School progress is negatively affected for oldest sons but unaffected for other children in the household. In East Gojjam this may be due to the oldest son choosing to focus less on schooling when his probability of taking over the farm increases. In South Wollo, oldest sons’ school enrolment and grade progress move in opposite directions, and worse average school progress among oldest sons could be related to the fact that some oldest sons who previously did not attend at all now have the possibility to do so.

Mixed impacts on child labour

Child labour decreased in East Gojjam and increased in South Wollo, which has more difficult agro-ecological conditions and where households were warier of the formalization of their land rights. The increase in South Wollo could be a direct effect of the obligation to conserve the land, which requires such things as building terraces in areas with steep slopes. Unfortunately, we cannot unpack child labour across birth order since child labour supply is aggregated at the household level.

Land titling benefits rural children

To sum up, the formalization of land rights appears to be mostly beneficial for children in rural areas. Despite the deterioration of grade progress of oldest sons, we should not forget that increased certainty that he can take over the land is a benefit for him, particularly in areas of relatively high agricultural productivity.


Besley, T. (1995). Property Rights and Investment Incentives: Theory and Evidence from Ghana. Journal of Political Economy 103(5), 903–37.

Congdon Fors, H., Houngbedji, K., & Lindskog, A. (2015). Land Certification and Schooling in Rural Ethiopia.

de Soto, H. (2000). The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Every- where Else. New York: Basic Books.

Field, E. (2007). Entitled to Work: Urban Property Rights and Labor Supply in Peru. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(4), 1561–1602.

Galiani, S. and E. Schargrodsky (2010). Property Rights for the Poor: Effects of Land Titling. Journal of Public Economics 94(9-10), 700–729.

Moura, M., R. D. L. da Silveira Bueno, and L. Leony (2009). How Land Title Affects Child Labor? Policy Research Working Paper Series 5010, The World Bank.