Inheritance Practices and the Intergenerational Transmission of Poverty in Africa

118 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2010

See all articles by Elizabeth Cooper

Elizabeth Cooper

University of Oxford - Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology

Date Written: January 19, 2010


This paper is comprised of a literature review and an annotated bibliography of past and current empirical and theoretical scholarship and policy analysis concerning the de jure and de facto rules and norms of inheritance practices in African societies, particularly with regard to physical assets, and their effects on the intergenerational transmission (IGT) of poverty.

The paper has two complementary sections: 1) a literature review which provides a critical overview of the key questions, methods and findings of investigations concerning inheritance and poverty in African societies; and 2) an annotated bibliography, which lists and summarises relevant works on the same issues.

The literature review and annotated bibliography present recent scholarship which has contributed to the case for investigating the links between inheritance systems and IGT poverty. These foundational conceptual works address how inheritance systems may implicate poverty processes in African societies, the significance of physical assets to chronic and IGT poverty, and theoretical models of the correlations between inheritance structures and economic status that have been developed in non-African contexts. Studies of so-called ‘traditional’ inheritance practices among particular societies in Africa are then reviewed.

Following this is a summary of research that discusses the legal and socio-political contexts within which inheritance systems in African countries operate, and attends to analysis of how and why inheritance rules and practices have changed. The last two sections of the literature review and annotated bibliography profile recent scholarship that explicitly examines inheritance rules and practices for their poverty implications in African societies. Central to questions of inheritance inclusion and exclusion are property rights, and the bulk of this body of poverty studies literature addresses women’s exclusion from land ownership in Africa. As such, attention is paid to work that analyses gender equity in property and inheritance rights as well as opportunities for legal reform in particular African countries. The final chapters of the literature review and bibliography reflect the focus of recent poverty studies on identifying categories of people who are particularly vulnerable to chronic poverty, and specifically groups whose vulnerability is exacerbated by their exclusion or inequality in inheritance systems. The reviews account for those studies that focus on the poverty effects of exclusionary inheritance rules and practices for widowed women, children and households affected by HIV/AIDS.

Keywords: inheritance, intergenerational transmission of poverty, assets, Africa

Suggested Citation

Cooper, Elizabeth, Inheritance Practices and the Intergenerational Transmission of Poverty in Africa (January 19, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Elizabeth Cooper (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology ( email )

United Kingdom

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