Drawing the general critique, that comparative urbanism fails

Drawing from Ward (2010) relational comparative method, as opposed to
‘traditional’ comparative urban studies, this essay explores its contributions to
understand property rights systems. This relational approach emerges as a
response to postmodern critics (Nijman, 2013:2), that disregard comparative
methods for being ‘developmentalist and universalist’ (Ward, 2010:476). It goes
beyond the general critique, that comparative urbanism fails to account for the
role of western theories and in the-so called Global South and foresee a
potential field of inquiry that could develop a better understanding of cities
and contribute to a broader theorization (Robinson, 2016; Nijman, 2007). This
essay tackles this proposition by exploring the literature on property
formalization and contrast both comparative methods. Therefore, it begins by
discussing how scholars such as De Soto have mobilized universalist and
developmentalist comparative schemes, to mainstream capitalist policies on property
formalization policies (Nijman, 2013:5; Bromley 2009). In doing so it
highlights the limits and risks of urban comparison, but also acknowledges the
need of an alternative approach. It then examines the ways in which Toulmin (2008)
uses a relational comparative approach to clarify the relation between land tenure
and economic development, in her work on property rights in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Since Washington Consensus, formalisation of property relations through a
central registration system of land and the issuance of titles has been the
ultimate prescription of Western countries on poor nations to enhance
productivity (Bromley, 2009). The underpinning rationale of that sort of
policies is that “rich countries have formalised tenure therefore formalisation
of tenure will help make you rich” (Bromley, 2009:20). Scholars such as
Hernando de Soto (2001), has shaped this argument by comparing West capitalist
countries to Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America countries (2001: 5), arguing
that ‘capitalist development’ has not been possible because ownership is often
based on informal rights (de Soto, 2017). In other words, that poor inhabitant
“do have things, but they lack the process to represent their property and
create capital” (de Soto, 2001:5). In his view, making domestic capitalism work
requires then understand why Westerners, by representing assets with titles can
unlock capital (de Soto 2001:7).

Unfortunately, empirical research in sub-Saharan Africa on formalisation
of tenure as a stimulus to investment is unable to establish any robust and
reliable connection between “more secure” tenure and enhanced productivity (Bromley,
2009; Toulmin, 2008:15). Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana (Toulmin, 2008: 15) or Cameroon (Firmin-Sellers
and Sellers, 1999) cases show that central registration is not suitable for
every context, and when implemented alone is not enough to improve access to
credit. For example, Banks would require income proof rather than property
titles to authorize a credit to an urban dweller.

As shown by Ward (2010: 480), this kind of comparative approach rests
primarily on generalizations, carrying weak explanations for causation. Taking
for granted a universal meaning of private property and applying it to
different economic, political and social contexts settings, it misrepresents a specific
context.  Moreover, this ethnocentric
bias, entailed by a Western definition of ‘property rights’ (von Benda-Beckmann
et al, 2006:14; Brenner, 2004:18), produces a ‘law-like explanation’ (Nijman,
2007:5) that fails to analyse institutional diversity and the divergence of evolutionary
pathways (von Benda-Beckmann et al, 2006:14: Brenner, 2004:18).

In contrast to de Soto, Toulmin’s rejects the ‘development’ discourse
behind the promotion of ‘ideal -types’ of property rights systems and moves
towards a relational comparison to understand the relation between poverty and
land titles (Toulmin, 2008:17). Whereas de Soto ‘measures’ legal systems
against ‘universal’ concepts of private property rights (Hart, 2002:14-15;
Ward, 2010:480), she starts by pointing out that the key questions is how
support for land titling and registration can benefit poorer groups (Toulmin,
200810). To address this question, she first analyses the conception property rights
in each country, and the interrelation of social, cultural and political institutions.
By doing so she recognizes the diversity and overlapping nature of land rights
and brings awareness of having full regard for the importance of collective
property (Toulmin, 2008:18). Such a relational approach, opens the opportunity
to interrogate the need of titling systems designed exclusively for private
property in African countries, where collective property plays a major role. Furthermore,
drawing from Robinson’s taxonomy of urban comparisons (2016;196), we can
conclude that Toulmin’s research achieves one of the key comparative ambitions:
explain the outcomes of land titles systems by reframing the meaning ‘property
rights’ in a particular context (Robinson, 2014:66).