Villagers protest against a copper mine project and demand compensation for the seizure their land, March 13, 2013.
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

The World Bank recently acknowledged a troubling fact: While working to rid the world of poverty through projects that required moving millions of people, such as dam construction, urban renewal, and rural development, it did not sufficiently monitor their compensation and resettlement. As a result of these failures, the World Bank is unsure whether the displaced were properly reimbursed for what they lost or provided with a new home or farmland.

The current controversy emerged after the World Bank conducted three internal reviews that it then released to the public last month. The reports concluded that “sizeable gaps in information point to significant potential failures in the Bank’s system for dealing with resettlement.” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim noted that he planned to address the shortcomings, telling journalists, “I believe that we must do better.”

The World Bank’s failure to effectively track the implementation of its own robust safeguards for resettlement and land compensation means that it cannot determine whether the myriad government projects it funded did more good than harm. All this is a tragic reminder that development without protection for peoples’ land rights can be self-defeating. That is because land ownership is often the bedrock of other development interventions: owning land boosts nutrition, educational outcomes, and gender equality. The converse is equally true. Where land security is absent or weak—that is, when men and women do not receive recognized legal rights to their land and can thus be easily displaced without recourse—development efforts flounder, seeding injustice and conflict, undermining conservation efforts, and frustrating efforts to escape poverty.

The stories are as endless as the lessons are clear: ignore land issues at the peril of development, and more importantly, of the poor.

In Ethiopia, for example, a study found that families who perceive that they have secure rights to their land had higher agricultural productivity and were 60 percent more likely to invest in terracing, which can increase agricultural output and protect the land. These families were more likely to make other valuable investments, such as planting trees, which enhance future productivity. Research in Brazil revealed that those protected from forced land appropriation or eviction were less likely to engage in deforestation; secure land rights thus changes farmers’ relationship to the land for the better, reorienting them toward long-term goals and stewardship. Another study in Argentina discovered that children in families that had assurance of ownership over their land demonstrated better educational outcomes.

Women with secure land rights amplify those benefits. When they hold or inherit property, women are more economically empowered, which can afford them protection against domestic violence and improve living standards for their children. A study in Tanzania found that women with protected land rights earned three times more than those without. In India, women whose land ownership rights were secure were eight times less likely to experience domestic violence. In Nepal, studies showed that children whose mothers securely own their land were 33 percent less likely to be malnourished.

In light of the evidence, there is growing recognition within the international development community that secure rights to land are key to development. Advocates have highlighted the issue during ongoing discussions on replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Set to expire later this year, these global standards have achieved uneven results in what they set out to do: alleviate extreme poverty, resolve gender inequality, and ensure universal access to primary education, among others. A number of United Nations reports, such as one drafted by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's high level panel and another released in December 2014 have all characterized secure land rights as a key element of any future effort to achieve development goals.

Local authorities in Nanning, China built around this lone house after the owners refused to vacate because of inadequate compensation, April 10, 2015.
Reuters

But that raises a question: Why were land rights excluded in the original MDGs? And why are they so often overlooked in development projects both large and small?  The answer lies in part in their invisibility. Compared to infrastructure such as roads, hospitals, and ports, the civic framework needed to ensure land rights is harder to see and more challenging to measure.

The World Bank estimates that developing countries spend about $1 trillion a year building infrastructure such as roads and bridges. It also calculates that such infrastructure requires an added investment of about $1 trillion or more a year until 2020 in order to sustain development and economic growth. But such tangible projects too often trump the need for improvements to protect and improve the invisible infrastructure of land rights. Consider the fact that 90 percent of rural land in Africa is not legally documented, according to the World Bank. My organization, Landesa, which works to secure land rights for the world’s poor, estimates that at least one-third of farmers in rural India lack secure rights to the land that they farm. Since lack of secure rights curbs investment and interest in environmental conservation, it will be impossible to achieve development goals, let alone fashion sustainable development projects, without accounting for land rights.

Yet, as we have witnessed in our work with a variety of organizations and governments, there is no shortage of well-meaning development projects that have ignored or sidelined land issues. For example, one conservation program sought to upgrade soil quality only to find that once it was improved, the men took the land from the women, who, despite their feeble hold on the land, had put their labor into it. In another case, housing programs that offered funds to the homeless to buy materials for building their own shelters forgot that the poor often do not own the land on which to build their homes. Finally, many agricultural training initiatives are only available to those with documented rights to land, which leaves the poorest of the poor unable to access the resources they need to boost their harvests and their incomes.

The stories are as endless as the lessons are clear: ignore land issues at the peril of development, and more importantly, of the poor.

One of the greatest challenges for those who have been interested in integrating land rights into their work or understanding land rights on a macro scale has been the lack of data. Now, the Global Land Indicators Initiative has developed and agreed to a land rights indicator that provides a feasible path for tracking women and men’s land rights. It should be included in the sustainable development framework that will take the place of the expiring MDGs and can be a useful tool for development workers who want to understand land rights in the country where they work.

Brazilian Indians from various indigenous ethnic groups take part in a demonstration to raise awareness of land demarcation and indigenous, April 15, 2015.
Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

The initiative suggests two methods for measuring the strength of land rights. First is the percentage of men, women, indigenous peoples, and local communities with legally documented or other recognized evidence of secure rights to land, property, and natural resources. Second is the percentage of these same four groups of people who perceive that their rights are recognized and protected. These categories are important in looking at how women may have rights to land by law but may not know of them or find that their entitlements are neither accepted nor recognized in their family or community. It is also critical to understand whether indigenous peoples perceive that they have secure rights to the land that they have used for generations when in actuality have no legal documentation of ownership. 

Together, these measures can help provide a picture of land tenure security and a method for tracking the progress of six of the 15 post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals that will replace the MDGs: ending poverty; ensuring food security; achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment; reducing inequality within and among countries; making cities and human settlements inclusive; and protecting, restoring, and promoting sustainable use of ecosystems, forests, and land. Further, data and indicators that are disaggregated by sex ensure that women are not left behind when it comes to land rights.  

Collecting meaningful data and using a land rights development approach will enhance agricultural development, poverty alleviation, food security, women’s economic empowerment efforts, and a host of other critical endeavors. It will also mean that development interventions will be smarter and protect the very people they intend to serve: the poor.

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  • TIM HANSTAD is President and CEO of Landesa, a global development non-profit organization that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor women and men.
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