Giving people land title and passing new land laws fall short in addressing poverty

by Jason A. Baguia | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 25 March 2014 00:29 GMT

A man in Yangwang village in Liangyuan township, China, shows his certificate of land use. His village is the site of a pilot programme to give villagers clearer title to land holdings. Feb 4, 2013 by Reuters.

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Land titling programmes risk becoming “white elephants” if they are seen as an end in themselves, rather than as a means toward economic development, one land expert warns.

WASHINGTON  (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Land reform programmes and giving people land title are not proving sufficient to reduce poverty, policymakers and experts said on Monday in recommending that governments address land issues as part of a broader economic development plan.   

Governments and development agencies have embraced land reform as an important way to strengthen people’s economic stake in their communities and encourage them to invest in their land and increase its productivity. The United Nations estimates that 70 percent of land in developing countries has no documented tenure, while over 3 billion people live in poverty.       

But merely putting land legislation into place and providing citizens with documented land rights is falling short as a solution for addressing these problems, said Stefan Dercon, chief economist of the UK's Department for International Development.

“Our programmes risk trying to build institutions without impact or that are wrong for particular settings,” Dercon told delegates at the opening session of the World Bank's Land and Poverty conference in Washington.

“Are we building sustainable, transparent land systems that support growth, job creation, poverty reduction and equal opportunities?” he said. “Or are we creating white elephants?”

Daudi Migereko, Uganda’s land minister, told the conference that his government needs to persuade citizens to value land as an economic asset and one they will invest in to improve their livelihood, because they currently only see land title as a “social status symbol”.

Ugandan institutions need to be overhauled so that they not only provide secure land rights but they also enable new landowners to participate in agricultural growth and  industrialization, Migereko said.

Dercon pointed to a number of examples where land reform programmes have fallen short. Tanzania adopted a 1999 Land Act which provided more opportunity for poor people in urban areas of Dar es Salaam to own land. But 15 years later, fewer than 3 percent of households had obtained land titles, because the process was so complex involving 12 different steps and costing 30 times more than advertised, he said.

The Tanzanian government also designed a programme to guarantee that a wife’s name was recorded on a land title as a way to strengthen gender rights. Although men have responded positively, Dercon said there are no signs it has given women any significant power over the land.

Balancing economic growth with private land rights also is proving difficult, he said. Many countries conduct so–called eminent domain takeovers, in which a government takes private land for public use. But this power should be used carefully, especially if it is done by force, he said.

In West Bengal, India, violent protests broke out in 2006 when the government used a 1894 law from British colonial times to make a compulsory purchase of 400 hectares of fertile farmland so that the commercial company Tata Motors could build a factory to produce the Nano car. Ultimately the company pulled out after the protests.  

In Kombolcha, Ethiopia, the government, which owns all the land, took over 300 hectares of agricultural land to make way for a privately owned steel plant. It paid a group of settlers the equivalent of 10 years of land productivity and initially they appeared optimistic about their lives. But over the next half decade, they said they felt the government had cheated them and they did not know how to invest the money, Dercon said.

 “Are land rights and the way we offer them a real solution for the problem?” he asked.  “Are we learning while doing (and assessing) whether they actually work, deliver what they claim to deliver?”

The Land and Poverty conference continues through Thursday. 

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