OPINION: Will the shock of COVID-19 finally move land administration into the modern world?

Friday, 22 May 2020 14:59 GMT

A worker holds a hoe as they remove weed at a farm amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Eikenhof, South Africa, April 16, 2020. Picture taken April 16, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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As life moves online under the pandemic, officials must update archaic land systems to increase resilience for the future

Yuliya Panfil is director of the Future of Property Rights Program at New America, a U.S. based think tank.

Thierry Hoza Ngoga is Head of Support to State Capability at Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

The COVID-19 pandemic is devastating service delivery globally, but in developing countries it is crippling an industry that, in theory, should be well positioned to weather the crisis: land administration.

In most OECD countries land administration services like issuing a lease, transferring a title, or applying for boundary rectification are delivered electronically. But in much of the developing world, land administration systems are still paper-based and even these simple transactions like must be completed in person.  As a result, in the midst of global lockdowns and work from home transitions, many countries have stopped offering land administration services altogether. Local governments and municipalities aren’t collecting land-based revenues, and citizens are locked out of completing even the simplest property-related tasks.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The unexpected health emergency caused by COVID-19 has revealed that it’s high time to reassess the preparedness and resilience of the land administration sector.

Technology, and in particular information and communication technologies (ICT), are critical to this endeavor. More than 60% of the world is now connected to the Internet, and an estimated 800,000 new users come online every day.  Administrative agencies all over the world – not just in the Global North - should recognize this fact and allow customers to access land-related services and information remotely through the Internet, mobile technologies, data analytics, AI, and blockchain.

Over the last two decades, these technologies have helped governments and private service providers design and deliver actionable information and targeted services at scale. ICT aggregate different sources of data to mitigate knowledge and access asymmetries. And they are cheaper, more efficient, and more resilient than analog methods. They can facilitate socioeconomic development during best of times, and mitigate financial hardship during catastrophes like the one we are currently experiencing.

Some developing countries are already using digital technologies to make it easier to access and use land management services. For example, in Rwanda speculative property buyers can access land-related information through their mobile phone, while mortgage registration and land rentals are conducted online.

So how can paper-based land administration systems in other developing nations get from here to there? Policymakers should consider these four steps to deliver effective services supported by ICT:

  1.  Identify the capacity gaps and also opportunities for ICT-based land administration, and invest where appropriate. Internet connectivity, for example, is limited in many developing countries, especially in rural areas. Access to mobile or digital technologies, as well the ability to use them, is limited due to widespread poverty and illiteracy. At the same time, mobile phone penetration is moving at dizzying rates and is facilitating both connectivity and access to information and services. This in turn is catalyzing economic and social transformation for tens of millions in both rural and urban areas, in particular through mobile money apps. The ability to deploy ICT depends on access to a basic connectivity infrastructure, such as broadband and telecommunication services, as well as on the development of data infrastructure, notably collection methods and analytic services. Public-private partnerships can help build institutional capacity, and build required infrastructure or ICT itself.

  2. Amend and adapt relevant policies and laws to allow for ICT-based land administration. Surrounding land administration services must acknowledge digital and electronic transactions and other related services. Governments must troubleshoot their laws, policies and regulations to understand which ones are inhibiting the adoption of ICT, and make changes as needed. For example, many land administration offices don’t recognize digital land titles or electronic signatures.
  1. Start small by piloting ICT solutions and pay attention to their impacts on both customers and institutions. Starting small and being transparent is critical when exploring new technology. It’s a good way to manage risk, analyze anything unexpected, and prove viability. Results from the pilot phase should determine the required resources, infrastructure, time, or methodology to scale up a technical solution.
  1. Use evidence collected in the pilot to amend policies and laws, where necessary. Information gleaned from the pilot should help inform policy and legal reform, in order to ease the scale-up.

ICT reform, which the land rights sector has spoken about for decades now, is even more urgent in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Creating access to digital services is critical for socioeconomic recovery following the current crisis, as well as for building resilience for the next disaster. And as economies recover, demand for land-related services, information, and transactions will only increase.

The land sector must seriously reflect and learn lessons from the COVID-19 crisis, and come up with plans to build preparedness measures and resilient systems in order to mitigate and respond to future shocks. Adopting digital technologies is crucial for ensuring citizens’ quick and efficient access to land administration services, both in good times and in bad.