In 1999, when a few enthusiasts agreed to meet annually in an effort to base interventions on land, on solid empirical evidence rather than ideology, few would have expected this effort to have such a lasting impact. Twenty years on, the small gathering has morphed into a conference, bringing together over 1,500 participants from governments, academics, civil society and the private sector to discuss the latest research and innovations in policies and good practice on land governance around the world.
Three examples illustrate how the years have changed the dialogue:
- In contrast to the then prevailing paradigm of individual titling, research has shown recognition of group rights to often be more effective. The shift towards a continuum of rights facilitated dramatic change in terms of recognition and demarcation of indigenous land rights. Registration of more than 100 mn. ha in Mexico had clear economic benefits and Brazil’s environmental registry reduced deforestation and provides a basis for rights recognition.
- Aided by advances in technology, high-cost approaches that often just provided rents or bribes to vested interests, were almost completely replaced by ‘fit for purpose’ ways to register individual rights, accompanied by simplified planning. This transformed most of Eastern Europe and China and, building on Rwandan and Ethiopian examples, is starting to make its way into Africa.
- While gender hardly featured two decades ago, a wealth of evidence shows the far-reaching impact of women having documented, and thus enforceable rights to land and property as households’ most important assets. Joint registration of land increased women’s bargaining power and children’s education across the globe, triggering efforts to make such change permanent, e.g. by clarifying default marital property regimes and provisions for inheritance.
And the current digital economy creates opportunities in at least three respects:
- Connectivity expands outreach, targeting and facilitating inclusive, participatory processes for first time registration and maintenance to keep records current. It allows leveraging of land rights for financial inclusion through savings mobilization, insurance, and (micro) loans.
- Satellite imagery allows not only low-cost first-time registration but, more importantly, linking of rights to responsibilities in terms of sustainable land use/management or compliance with planning regulations or building permits, and near-real time compliance monitoring.
- Interoperability allows making land rights meaningful by linking them to national ID databases, using decentralized ledgers, and taxing (urban) land for own-source revenue generation so that the recent vast increases of urban land values accrue to the public rather than landlords.
If these opportunities are harnessed, going forward documentation of land rights can have a major role in addressing global challenges such as climate change and land degradation, sustainable urbanization, and gender equality.
To do so, research that uses ‘big’ registry data jointly with imagery and surveys will be relevant in three areas:
- Land rights, empowerment, and structural transformation: Ensuring registries have comprehensive coverage, are gender-balanced, authoritative, secure, financially self-sustaining and interoperable to support investment, efficiency-enhancing land transfers (rather than land grabs or monopolistic markets), and access to finance.
- Land for competitive green cities: Better land use via forward-looking zoning that lays out arterial infrastructure for cities to expand less haphazardly, allowing low-cost service provision and sustained own-source revenue generation to harness agglomeration economies and create jobs.
- Political economy challenges: Regulations benefiting special interests, public institutions that simultaneously regulate and own/manage land, and de-facto monopolies on service delivery have affected the land sector since colonial days and can be reinforced in a digital environment if not regulated. Ways to enhance transparency and competition, e.g. through international benchmarking or by working with sub-national entities are thus essential to create a level playing field and empower land owners.
The task of legally securing land rights and ensuring they are used for everybody’s benefit remains enormous: only 22% of countries globally (4% in Africa) have private rights in the capital city mapped or registered.
And the World Bank is uniquely placed to
- use policy lending to simplify regulations for registration and planning, reduce cost of service provision, and pilot/evaluate simplified approaches that offer scope for cost recovery;
- move legacy land data to a fully digital environment that is interoperable within Government (e.g. ID and firm registries, building permits) and that can be accessed by the private sector (e.g. banks) as needed; and
- finance expansion of successful pilots to build complete sustainable systems.
SDG 4.2.1 aims to ensure universal coverage with securely documented land rights by 2030. With limited progress thus far and innumerable obstacles, this seems a near-impossible task. Yet, the past two decades have shown that what was almost unimageable then, is now within reach and, building on its unique ability to link research to operational engagement, the Bank is ready to contribute to achieving this challenge.