Land rights are largely taken for granted in the developed world. Yet for many people in developing nations, land rights have no reality. In the developed world, land rights are almost always recorded in secure registers, but this is not the case elsewhere. It is estimated that as many as 90 percent of the world’s poorest people enjoy neither security of tenure nor secure access to land. In Africa, this means that more than 500 million and perhaps as many as 750 million people are living without any legal security or proof of claim to the land they are occupying.
The establishment and registration of formal or customary rights of occupancy are essential building blocks in ensuring people have security so that they are then protected from forced evictions or a denial of their occupancy right. Consequently, they are able to pass on these land rights to others through inheritance or transfer. Various studies have shown that tenure security encourages people to invest more in their land, leading to greater productivity (whether it be agricultural land or urban retail property). Ultimately, this investment translates into increased household income and reduced poverty.
In recent years, we have seen a global shift in how large-scale registration of land rights is brought about. DAI is leading this global change by championing the low-cost “fit for purpose” approach to mass registration, which has been used to identify, demarcate, and register millions of land parcels at an average cost of less than US$10 per parcel—all in highly compressed time frames.
In Rwanda, DAI completed the registration of more than 10 million parcels in less than five years; in Ethiopia, we are embarking on a similar project that will cover more than 14 million parcels. In both cases, the approach is...
“In the 21st century,” as I write with my co-authors in the companion piece to this article, “land administration systems will nearly always be developed using digital systems. Assuming they are well designed, then they are more secure, more efficient, more transparent, and more accessible.”
But the test of any tool is with users in the field. This axiom of development is borne out by DAI’s experience implementing a land tenure registration activity in Tanzania, where a pilot of the open source Mobile Application for Secure Tenure (MAST) has yielded important lessons that we are now incorporating into the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future Land Tenure Assistance (LTA) activity.
The evidence is clear: property rights are essential foundations for poverty alleviation and economic development. In Africa, it is less clear as to what may be the most effective way of establishing and especially maintaining those rights, with formal and customary tenure systems both offering degrees of security but radically different development possibilities.
In 2007, oil and gas was discovered off the coast of Ghana, leading to a boom in infrastructure projects and investment in the country’s Western Region, particularly in six coastal districts. Subsequently, large tracts of land have been taken over for the development of oil and gas infrastructure, businesses, pipelines, roads, and areas allocated for machinery repair. While this surge in activity has raised expectations for economic benefits among local communities, it has also spurred questions about resettlement and compensation, alternative livelihood and job opportunities, changes to land use, and food security.
Public-private partnerships (PPPs) have a long history as effective mechanisms for delivering infrastructure projects and more recently as vehicles for service provision. The use of PPPs for land administration services is less common, though there are a few notable successes in developed economies. In a development context—where donor-funded titling or tenure regularization projects often face serious challenges of sustainability—a PPP approach could provide a model for completing reforms nationwide and sustaining the progress achieved on a given project. DAI, which recently implemented a land tenure regularization project on one of several islands that comprise Cabo Verde, is exploring the possibility of completing that nation’s cadaster via an innovative PPP.
Large-scale land registration programmes such as the U.K. for International Development (DFID)-funded Rwanda Land Tenure Regularisation Programme have demonstrated that it is possible to roll out land registration programmes quickly and cheaply, on a national scale. Now, a similar but even more ambitious U.K. initiative in Ethiopia—the Land Investment for Transformation Programme (LIFT)—is beginning to gain traction. Building on the lessons learned in Rwanda, LIFT is working to keep the momentum going, ensure the programme is financially sustainable, and begin to realize the development benefits of expanded land titling.
International efforts to secure the land and resource rights of local and indigenous peoples are increasingly finding a friend in the law. National and international law, policies, and jurisprudence are coming together with “soft” legal guidelines and principles to yield stronger standards related to indigenous land and resource rights. Landmark cases are creating precedent for local or indigenous people who have been displaced to reoccupy or retain property, which may lead to strong tenure security and autonomy.
At the request of the U.K. Department for International Development, DAI recently undertook structured research into the following question: What policies and interventions or approaches have been successful in fostering compliance with legitimate land tenure rights and what impact have these strategies had on development outcomes? The research team was led by Geoffrey Payne and included James Mitchell, Luke Kozumbo, Clive English, and Richard Baldwin, using Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA), a methodology that uses a structured approach to identify relevant literature and then assess the robustness of the evidence presented.
Around 70 percent of Sierra Leoneans live in rural areas, the large majority of them depending on agriculture for their livelihoods. Issues of land ownership, tenure, and inheritance rights are therefore crucial to virtually every rural household. But these issues are bound up in a system of customary law that in turn reflects endemic gender discrimination. One of the most vexing problems facing women and girls, for example, is the dispossession of their land in the event that a husband dies without the customary marriage being formally registered. It’s a problem that has drawn the attention of the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID), and one where DFID’s Access to Security and Justice Programme (ASJP) made substantial headway.
Much has been written about the impacts of long-term land-based investments on local land rights, development, and livelihood opportunities—and much of the commentary, driven by notable controversies, has been hostile to the land investor. But while investors now have a plethora of guidelines and principles to follow in implementing their projects, they still confront a dearth of hard information and statistics based on actual experience.
The challenge was steep but straightforward. Survey, collect, and clarify information for all land parcels in Rwanda—an estimated 7.9 million plots that eventually turned out to be millions more—and provide lease certificates to all rightful claimants. Never before attempted in Rwanda, yet alone accomplished, this feat had to be executed in line with Rwanda’s land law, completed in less than five years, and delivered “affordably.”