In West African countries, husbands and wives farm separate pieces of land, but women consistently produce fewer crops on their plots, even after considering differences such as plot sizes and crop choices. Given that families in the region rely heavily on agricultural production, these shortfalls can result in lower food security, nutritional deficiencies, and lower incomes.
To improve agricultural production, one proposed solution is to reallocate land ownership from women to men.
According to DCID Associate Professor of Public Policy and Economics Marcos Rangel, “If women are underproductive, the prescription, by a simple economic model, would be to take away their agricultural resources and give them to their husbands – an approach that undermines gender imbalances in the region as well as the fight for women’s empowerment across the developing world.” Rangel has spent over 10 years exploring the dynamics of family decision-making among West African families, as highlighted in his working paper, “Decision-Making in Complex Households.”
He recognized that other factors were contributing to agricultural outcomes, namely the quality of the land that women were allocated as well as the intricate relationships between husbands, wives, and extended family members.
“Collecting data that measures multiple dimensions of a soil’s quality is expensive and difficult to pull off at a large scale,” said Rangel. “In fact, most economists do not have access to good data on land quality. So, my read of the evidence is a bit more cautious, and I am reluctant to attribute disparities in productivity to a failure of husbands and wives to cooperate on producing as much as they can as a family unit.”
Rangel then began probing the family unit for more clarity on how decisions made between husbands and wives affect agricultural production and other aspects of familial resource allocation.
He said, “I know that families are making decisions both about how they farm the land on the production side, as well as how they allocate their resources towards consumption such as how much to invest in their kids, how much they spend on food, and what types of non-food goods to buy. If there is a failure to cooperate within a household, we should be able to see misallocations when they take decisions about consumption also.”
Through an analysis of data on farming households in West Africa, Rangel, together with co-author Duncan Thomas, economics professor at Duke, examined production and consumption decisions within the same households, focusing on both farming and input decisions as well as the use of resources towards consumption and savings.
The results confirmed his suspicion that families are doing the best they can with their resources. “All the indications are that these families are working together to maximize well-being of their members – and the empirical evidence is that no one member can be made better off without hurting others, which is what economist call an efficient allocation,” Rangel said.
“The results on differential production between wives and their husbands are most likely a result of incomplete data as opposed to egregious choices within families.” This result also applied to more complex household structures in which many adult extended family members play an active role in decisions on resource allocation.
“At the end of the day, taking the land from a woman and giving it to her husband would ultimately not benefit these families. He would most likely produce at the same level she is producing, because the main relevant input is the land. Furthermore, there would be negative consequences for gender balance, with women being put in a more precarious position. Solid use of economic theory plays an important role in designing data analysis and prescribing policy interventions. Therefore, we should always be very attentive when translating science to policy making.”
Pointing out the salience of his research in international development policy, Rangel added, “I see family as the key institution for understanding international development, because most fundamental decisions are made in that environment. In societies with limited resources and institutions, families play an even more vital role, providing the means for borrowing and lending money, insurance mechanisms, and playing the role of a well-functioning social security system.”
Rangel has been teaching in Duke’s Master of International Development Policy program since joining the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) in 2014. Prior to joining DCID, he worked at Princeton University, the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
By: April L. Raphiou, DCID Communications Director