Applying Cultural Evolution

Institutional Legacy and Policy Effectiveness

Research team

Marco Fabbri, Principal Investigator
Hanna Frommel, Co-Investigator
Charles Ibikounlè, Co-Investigator
Daniele Nosenzo, Co-Investigator
Jonathan Schulz, Co-Investigator
Rosaine Yegbemey†, Co-Investigator
Hervè Gbenahou, Collaborator

Key information

Full title: Institutional legacy and interventions for cultural change: The role of pre-existing conditions for public policies effectiveness
Host institution(s): University of Bologna (Italy), University of Abomey-Calavi (Benin), George Mason University (USA)
Research location: Benin

Project overview 

Imagine you live in a society in which land, the most valuable asset which you are farming to provide subsistence to your household, belongs to the local community and cannot be privately owned. Local leaders, who also include members of your extended family, decide whether you can access this land, how to use it, and, if there is a dispute, how the case should be settled. All these decisions are made following a customary system of unwritten and personalistic rules.  

Suddenly, this situation is radically reformed: your individual rights over the land you use are formally registered. Official tribunals and state police will protect your properties against contending family members, neighbors and intruders. What will be the social and economic consequences of such a radical change in property rights for your beliefs, attitudes, and behavior? Does this reform strengthen family ties and social cohesion, or does it lead to conflict within the communities? Do formal and more impartial property rights encourage female land ownership and strengthen gender equality, or do they have the unintended consequence that women lose de facto agency over land?   

Property rights over land are a key determinant in shaping communities’ social and economic organization – Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

While most high-income countries adopt systems of well-defined formal property rights over land, the majority of low and medium income countries rely on customary rules based on collectively-owned property and informal possession. In this project, we investigate the role of well-defined property rights (that is, the formal titling of land) for social cohesion, women’s agency and the perceived legitimacy of local traditional (vs national) institutions. To do so, we leverage a unique case of large-scale experiment on property rights that took place  in rural Benin between 2009 and 2011. Among 600 participating villages, half were randomly enrolled in the land-tenure reform that secured individual property rights, while the other half remained with the customary system and served as the control group. This allows us to investigate how a Western institution – individual property rights – impacts communities in this context.

Project contacts

If you would like to contact the project team, please email the grant management team in the first instance, at

Marco Fabbri: Website
Jonathan Schulz: Twitter