Fairness

Posted by Julie Litchfield

Julie Litchfield

This year’s World Development Report on conflict, to which some of MICROCON’s researchers have contributed, promises to place a renewed emphasis of the role of “grievances” in conflict, and not just in the extreme conflict scenarios of civil wars. One of the background papers, by John-Andrew McNeish of CMI Norway, stresses this in the context of natural resources, discussing the importance of the involvement of civil society, and of bargaining, which may be confrontational, in order to secure robust agreements about how resources should be managed and how resource rents should be fairly distributed. McNeish draws largely on lessons from the experience of managing non-renewable natural resources, but also highlights lessons we can learn from, for example, community forests and participatory water management.

Fairness is a principle that seems to underlie many of our everyday social and economic interactions.  An understanding of risk-aversion, information asymmetries  and costly monitoring of waged labour help us understand why share-cropping exists and persists as a common land tenancy arrangement in many parts of the developing world[1],  but it doesn’t help us understand why so many of these arrangements are based on roughly equal sharing of output and input costs. Indeed if the terms of these arrangements were based solely on these economic factors, we would expect to see variations in the sharing rule by such factors as land quality or the length of time that the tenant and landlord have worked together. Instead, the equality of sharing seems to be implicit in all these arrangements.  Another example is the Ultimatum game, often used in Economics class-rooms, that illustrates that fairness, or at least our desire to be seen as behaving fairly, is a commonly held value.

Some of us in MICROCON are working on understanding perceptions of fairness around land reform in Kyrgyzstan[2].  Secure access to land is widely regarded as being a crucial ingredient in contributing to economic growth and stability, as well as peace, and even land reforms with progressive aims can be highly contentious. Kyrgyzstan was one of the first former Soviet Union countries to embark on a land reform process, and remains the only one of the central Asian Economics to do so. Beginning in 1991 and over a period of more than a decade, land that had until then been farmed by state farms and by peasant collectives, was re-distributed to households. The very early stages of the land reform seems to be characterised by ad hoc  agreements involving local land commissions and land shares were often not well documented, but by 1994 the government enshrined a principle of fairness in the land reform policy, stating that every person had an equal right to an equal share. Even that though seems to have been open to interpretation, with farm workers taking precedence over other workers, and women reporting that they received smaller shares than men.

In 2006, a survey conducted by our partner, Roman Mogilevsky, asked households about their experiences of the land reform, and in particular whether or not they thought the reform was fair, and in 2010 we re-surveyed these households with a follow-up questionnaire. The data allows us to explore hypotheses around the features of the land reform that positively or negatively influence fairness. For example, are perceptions of fairness higher among those who received more land, or in villages and communities where land was indeed distributed more equally? Are perceptions of fairness influenced by the specific institutional arrangements that were applied at the time the household received their land share? Does receipt of the full set of formal documentation influence fairness perceptions? Are there gender differences in perceptions of fairness, and if so, are these related to, for example, the economic status of women at the time of the land share allocation? These are just some of the ideas we are currently exploring.

So far, we have observed variations in perceptions of fairness across regions of Kyrgyzstan, and also by the date on which households received their land share. Surprisingly, perceptions of fairness do not seem to be related to how much land a household received, in either an absolute sense or a relative sense. This might not yet tell us what does explain perceptions of fairness, but greed doesn’t seem to be a factor here. 


[1] See Stiglitz, J (1986) “The New Development EconomicsWorld Development, 14(2): 257-65 for a seminal contribution to the literature on share-cropping.

[2] This work involves Elodie Douarin, Julie Litchfield (both from the Department of Economics at the University of Sussex), Rachel Sabates-Wheeler  (Institute of Development Studies) and Roman Mogilevsky (CASE-Kyrgyzstan).

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