Specificities in Ghana: Institutional Plurality and the Plurality of Documentation

As in many African countries, land governance in Ghana is characterized by fluid boundaries between formal and informal institutions (Benjaminsen and Lund, 2002; Flyden, 2006; de Herdt,

2015; de Sardan, 2015) and a plurality of norms and laws that govern land access, uses, and transfers. The Land Administration Project of the World Bank (2003-2008) consolidated various organizations under the Lands Commission (LC) and created the Customary Land Secretariats (CLS) with the aim “to help customary authorities to improve and develop customary land administration” (Arko-Adjei, 2011, p.81). The LC holds the mandate to register land rights and maintain land tenure records as per statutory law. The customary sector includes the chieftaincy institution, namely, the “stool” chieftaincy in the south and the “skin” chieftaincy in the north, the latter being accompanied in customary offices by earth priests in some northern regions (Lund, 2008). Many of the statutory laws concerning land rights and associated administrative agencies originated in the time of Ghana’s independence. The overall move towards formalization of land administration across various types of land sectors (Oberdorf, 2017) plays a role in defining the institutional landscape around land rights documentation, and various types of institutions and associations may vie for recognition as public authorities. Therefore, we can speak of a kind of isomorphism that follows the insignia of the state, an isomorphism where formal norms (de Sardan, 2015) carry across different organizations and associations of actors and practices. At the same time, the “plurality of institutions produces ... ambiguous practical meanings of law and property” (Lund, 2008, p.6). Procedures and practices of land rights’ registration are not uniform across the country, but involve different actors and different proofs of evidence in the chain of validation that lead to an eventual registration, mostly of leasehold titles, with the Lands Commission (Abubakari, Richter, and Zevenbergen, 2018). In sum, despite isomorphic trends towards formalization and uniformization of registration processes, the institutional plurality and local politics over land also produce a plurality in methods to establish what counts as evidence for land claims with (contesting) oral knowledge and witness accounts playing an important role in land claim-making processes (Berry, 2001). In conclusion, even if the original values of blockchain and Ghana land registrations are unrelated, they might still converge in as far as the lack of a unique intermediary authority can be circumvented by an unalterable record of transactions which can allow unrelated parties to trade.

Theoretical Highlights and Possible Research Questions

Institutional theory in any of its variations considers especially the legitimate social models, thus the socially accepted courses of action that people have in front of them when dealing w'ith the many aspects of land management and use. As is strikingly clear from the previous two sections, the blockchain mode of organizing and land registration in Ghana show little to no overlapping. However, tw'o considerations may avoid discouragement: firstly, the origins of technology do not exhaustively predict where it ends up. The internet was invented to reduce the consequences of a Soviet nuclear attack on the US (Abbate, 2000), and ended being used to share pictures of cats and vacations. Secondly, even if the institutional logics remained different, there is no reason to exclude a priori that different logics could co-exist side by side. For example, even if nuclear pow'er came from military purposes, and is still managed in a highly hierarchical way, it serves civilian purposes no less.

So, we should not get carried away by an overemphasis on decentralized vs centralized registrations and different courses of actions that institutionalism highlights. The assessment of blockchain for land management should not be based on the fit between blockchain consensus and “statutory institutions” or “customary institutions.” Rather, what is likely to happen is that different systems (paper-based, oral, blockchain-signed ...) will interplay with each other. Institutional theory invites us to transcend the idiosyncrasies of individuals and consider social models to manage these interplays. With these points in mind, institutional theory can prompt further action and research on blockchain and land registries by focusing on these central concepts: immutability, auditability, incentive scheme, legal system vs “code is law.” Immutability over long periods of time is obviously central for any reliable land registry. Uncertain longevity of records undermines their validity from their inception. Immutability is also the core of blockchain technology, which relies on it to diminish the influence of third parties. Thus, to the extent third parties are a threat to records (corrupt officials, speculation ...), blockchain and land registries can converge in practice. Still, the actual longevity of decentralized authenticated tokens[1] over decades has to be proved. Also, their legal standing in courts awaits confirmation.

Accordingly, research questions could be: which land management practices would embrace or avoid blockchain-based registries; and for what reasons? Then, which existing authorities would gain or lose from the progressive introduction of those records? Finally, would the institutional landscape in Ghana see an increase or decrease of competing land registration practices?

Partly descending from immutability, auditability (allowing reading rights to non-validating parties, e.g. not-mining users) holds some promise of streamlining land management because it makes easier to check who did what and when.

Moving to the more technical aspects of blockchain, an innovation that proved viable at scale is its incentive scheme that keeps actors compliant with a consensus algorithm set up a priori. Ideally, this makes it conceivable to move away from current cost-recovery strategies (fees, general taxation, etc.) and hard-code the incentives into the blockchain ledger itself. How to do that would be a design research question with specific answers in specific contexts.

Lastly, institutionalism considers the legal system as one of the regulatory forces that shape organizations. Famously, Lessig (1999) stated that “code is law.” Therefore, code, especially if paired with suitable incentive systems, can help to enforce law or, alternatively, to consolidate the legal system in Ghana or elsewhere. More on this line of thinking can be found at the end of the next section.

Empirically, institutionalism invites collecting data where different social models encounter. An obvious starting point for such an inquiry is the existing registration procedures. Another one is in statutory and/or customary courts, where disputes are to be settled. Also, the definition of the consensus algorithm should not be overlooked when studying land registration, because its regulatory function is likely to be far-reaching, due to the immutability it enforces.

Institutional approaches have been criticized for treating people as “cultural dopes” (i.e. defined by their circumstances). So, besides the prospects presented so far, it is useful to consider other theoretical angles that help where institutionalism runs the risk of downplaying human agency.

  • [1] A digital, intangible, unique representation of something such as a crypto-currency. Native to a blockchain system.
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