Marketising the commons in Africa: the case of Ghana

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Journal Article
Review of Social Economy, 2016, 74 (4), pp. 390 - 419
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© 2016 The Association for Social Economics. The recent surge in the marketisation of the commons in Africa – especially of water bodies – warrants careful political economic analysis. Three questions remain intractable: (1) Were there markets in the beginning? If so, how have they transformed and if not, how did markets arise and transform over the years? (2) what are the outcomes of such markets for people, their livelihoods, and their environment? And (3) how to interpret the outcomes of water markets and whether water should be commodified at all. For new institutional economists, water markets have arisen because of the inferior nature of Indigenous or customary systems which are incapable of offering precisely what water markets offer Africa: economic and ecological fortunes. Using an institutional political economy approach and drawing on experiences in Ghana, the paper investigates the social history of marketisation of the commons and probes the effects of marketisation in terms of absolute, relative, and differential/congruent outcomes as well as the opportunity cost of the current water property rights regime. The empirical evidence shows that markets have been socially created through imposed and directed policies. Some jobs have been created through investment, but such employment is not unique to marketisation and private investment. Indeed, the private model of property rights has worsened the distribution of water resources not only within different property relations in Africa but also between diverse property relations. Water markets have been responsible for much displacement and trouble not only for communities but also nature. Overall, there is no necessary congruence between the promises made by new institutional economists and how communities experience water markets. Tighter regulations for the use of inland and transboundary water sources might temporarily halt the displacement of communities sparked by marketisation of the commons, but only one fundamental change can guarantee community well-being: to regard the access to and community control of water as constitutionally sanctioned human rights and as res communis.
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