BREAD Working Paper No. 428, September 2014

Customary Norms, Inheritance, and Human Capital: Evidence from a Reform of the Matrilineal System in Ghana

Eliana La Ferrara, Annamaria Milazzo


This paper studies the effects of descent rules on human capital accumulation. We exploit a policy experiment in Ghana that introduced minimum quotas for the land that parents should devolve on their children. This policy differentially affected ethnic groups depending on their descent rules: the matrilineal Akan saw a reduction in the share of land going to the matriclan and an increase in the land going to male children (who could not inherit from their own fathers before the reform). Patrilineal groups were instead less affected because sons could already inherit from fathers before the reform. Using a difference-in-differences strategy, across cohorts and ethnic groups, we estimate the impact of the reform on educational attainment. We find that Akan boys exposed to the reform received on average 0.9 less years of education, a 10 percent reduction. The effect is driven by landed households, for whom the reform did effectively bind, while no effect is found for non-landed households. This evidence is consistent with the fact that before the reform matrilineal groups in Ghana "over-invested" in education to substitute for land inheritance. Our findings suggest that in the presence of customary norms, land reform and the individualization of land rights may have implications that go beyond the agricultural sector and affect human capital accumulation in the long run.

Keywords: inheritance reform, land rights, matrilineal, education, Ghana

JEL classification codes: O12, I25

Download paper in PDF format