March 26, 2014

Commentary Series: Context is Crucial for Impacting Land Rights

By Dr. Jolyne Sanjak

This post is part of a series developed by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Landesa to highlight the importance of securing land rights for smallholder farmers. This series is running concurrently with the World Bank’s 2014 Land and Poverty Conference taking place in Washington, DC. Follow the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #landrights

When people like me speak about land rights and access or when we write project descriptions for advocacy and research pieces, we typically will assert that strengthening the security of land rights through measures like land titling is important to achieving rural development goals such as increased yields, investment, environmental conservation, and access to credit. While there is clear evidence, in my view, to support this story line, I'm also convinced that, in both theory and practice, the type and magnitude of impact is context-specific.

The particular issues that need attention, the particular solution tools, and the particular expected results vary a lot by context. Sometimes, there might not even be a need to intervene to improve land rights and sometimes results of an intervention may be different or smaller than expected, or even negative.

That reforms to strengthen land rights and improve land access patterns matter -- economically, socially, and politically -- to the agenda of sustainable rural development is not hard to believe if one stops to think about one’s own life and things going on around the globe. Yet, this topic is multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary, and messy. It is not only hard to simplify; simplifying too much can be unhelpful.

In opening a paper I authored recently for USAID, “USAID Issue Brief: Land Titling and Credit Access,” I say that: “People often look for the proverbial ‘silver bullet’ to take down a roadblock on the path out of poverty. All too often, land titling is seen as this kind of solution to credit access and a means to rural poverty reduction. Unfortunately, silver bullets of this sort aren’t found often in reality. While land titling can help to expand access to credit in some circumstances and can be an important part of a poverty reduction strategy, in most developing world environments, the ability to leverage a title for credit is limited for a variety of reasons.”

Likewise, a new Systematic Review published by Steve Lawry and five colleagues shows how the impact of certain measures to formalize land rights such as titling affects productivity and farmer well-being similarly pointing out that context matters. The review explains the complexities of land rights in a straight-forward and relatively simple manner -- something I and others often struggle to do. From the research reviewed (20 quantitative studies and a range of qualitative studies produced from 1980-2012 that met their standard of rigor), they affirm that strengthening land rights, including through issuing formal individual land titles, can have significant positive impacts. These authors found that such impacts are particularly evident in the research that covers countries in Latin America and Asia. The impact of titling was less dramatic in Africa. These authors hypothesize that the lack of results rigorously detected in research on African countries might be due to relatively well-functioning customary and informal land rights systems, which they refer to as an ‘Africa-effect.’

Although the idea of the ‘Africa-effect’ is interesting, I think we need to be cautious in thinking this way. Even though it is likely that formalizing tenure will have little impact in settings where customary and informal tenure is working pretty well, this type of thinking would mask important variations across Africa, within each country in Africa and, in fact, around the Americas and Asia too.

A recent paper by Benjamin Linkow posted on Landesa’s Focus on Land in Africa provides early quantitative evidence that in Burkina Faso perceptions of tenure insecurity (i.e., perceived risks of disputes) are positively correlated with large decreases in productivity. This study is not directly comparable to the body of research that Lawry, et al. review because the recordation of rights has not happened yet in the communities that Linkow studied. His study was done very early in an MCC-supported project lifecycle; evaluations will be conducted after its program ends and will reveal more about the interventions and their success in achieving expected outcomes. In the meantime, Mr. Linkow’s work provides one example in Africa of a country where customary tenure is still strong and often provides both social and economic security and, at the same time, where the need to harmonize customary rules and practices on land rights with statutory law and administrative practices is emerging. As rural development and demographic change happens, measures like formalizing land rights and improving related public services matter more.

In the context of a multi-dimensional thing like land tenure where the specific issues and tools to resolve these need to be tailored to context, nuance matters. Evaluations that are not careful to capture nuance in defining the intervention to be tested and the expected outcomes run the risk of being rigorously irrelevant. I am happy to relay that more and more rigorous, relevant research is being done and it is helping us to understand better in which context a given formalization intervention is appropriate and when intervening might not be important. At the end of the day, I think we are safe in saying that the issues of land rights and access matter for small farmers even if in different degrees and ways over time and across geographies.

Dr. Jolyne Sanjak is the Executive Director of the Land Alliance Inc.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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