Show me the money: Do land rights really equal cash?

by Jason A. Baguia | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 26 March 2014 01:24 GMT

A woman at her house in Cavite, Philippines. Jan. 4, 2013. REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo

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How do you prove that all these land rights reform programmes lead to better lives?

In management school, you're taught that you can't measure what you can't manage, or vice versa.

There's strong proof for this at the World Bank conference on Land and Poverty here in Washington, where governments and development organisations are trying to ensure that land rights offer more than a piece of paper.

That means they'll have to find ways to prove that all these land rights reform programmes lead to better lives.

So where do you start? You can try to measure the effects of land registration, which is easier or harder depending on what data you need.

Registering a million properties within two decades in countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union led to an estimated US $16 million in economic benefits per target country, said Mika-Petteri Torhonen, World Bank land specialist.

Registration programmes during the same period in Bulgaria coincided with growth in the real estate sector, said Aanchal Anand, another World Bank colleague of Torhonen.

But nevertheless, that doesn’t necessarily mean the programmes directly prompted prosperity.

Think of it like this. If a Bulgarian man registered his land, he may also get a high-paying job that makes him rich, even if he doesn't to sell his property.Anand admitted their "inability to attribute economic impact to land projects alone."

Then there are factors that affect land registration, such as the number of days it takes to register a property or transaction costs. You can measure those quite easily, Torhonen said.

Registrations in Croatia, for instance, rose after the government cut down transaction time by 90 percent.

But then again, Anand said, it's hard to measure economic gains in terms of efficiency and productivity.

The World Bank estimate of a 122-percent return on land registration investment in Kyrgyztan remains just that – an estimate - due to lack of adequate data.

A Kyrgyztan national would be elated if he knew that return on investment definitely means more food on his table or opportunities for him in the financial market, but we don't even know what the returns really consist of.

So show us the money.

In my home country of the Philippines, half a world from the World Bank's Washington, D.C., headquarters, farmers in a large hacienda are getting land rights under an agrarian reform program. What should I tell them? That they have suddenly become rich? It will take more than a piece of paper saying “Land Title” to do that.

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