March 24, 2014

Commentary Series - Measuring Global Goals in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

By Hien Tran

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, D.C. Follow the conversation on Twitter with hashtag #landrights

As discussions continue around the shape of the post-2015 development agenda and how to measure progress towards achieving new global goals, it is useful to step back and consider the story of the drunkard and the streetlight.

The story is that one night, a police officer sees a drunk man searching under a streetlight and he asks what the man has lost. The man responds that he lost his keys and they proceed to search together. After a few minutes, the police officer asks if the man is sure he lost them near the streetlight. The man responds, no, he lost his keys in the park, but he is searching near the streetlight because “that is where the light is.”

In our current dialogue regarding the framework to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals, we have to guard against this “observational bias” – we need to select goals, targets, and indicators that represent the critical dimensions that must be addressed in the fight against global poverty and inequality, rather than choosing goals, targets or indicators that are less meaningful but can be measured relatively easily.

Although it is often extremely difficult to reliably measure what is truly important—we must and we can do better.

Take secure land rights for women and men for example. There is a growing chorus of voices – including governments, civil society, and business community leaders – calling for the issue to be explicitly included in the post-2015 development agenda because strengthening such rights, particularly for women, can help achieve multiple development goals. Just last week, the co-chairs of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals released a document identifying rights and access to land, property, and other resources as a critical issue under four focus areas – poverty eradication, gender equality, food security, and rule of law. In other words, a target to increase and strengthen land rights for women and men under one or more goals in the Sustainable Development Goals/post-2015 agenda will contribute mightily to other goals as well.

But to ensure that we are working towards precise and impactful goals, we need to not only include land rights for women and men as a target in the new development agenda, we need to also measure our progress towards achieving this potential target in a meaningful way.

There are a variety of ways to measure an increase in secure land rights. Some are easier to measure; others are more challenging. For instance, consider three different ways to measure the extent to which women have secure land rights in any particular country.

  1. The degree to which a country’s laws recognize women’s rights to control, inherit, and own land and other productive resources.
  2. The ratio of women to men with documented rights to land.
  3. The percent of parcels owned by women.

Measuring legal frameworks may be the easiest route. But it is the most fraught with the potential for false positives. The existence of non-discriminatory and gender-sensitive legal frameworks, while a critical step, does not necessarily mean that women realize their land rights on an equal basis with men. We know from years of research and practice that legal provisions without effective implementation are hollow.

For example, India adopted the Hindu Succession Act Amendment in 2005, to ensure that daughters across India could enjoy equal rights to inherit their parents’ land. Yet a new study released last month found that eight years after the amendment’s passage, the majority of women surveyed not only did not inherit any land from their parents, they did not even know of another woman who had inherited land.

Given that such a lack of implementation is not unique to India, there is good reason to consider instead an element that better reflects whether women in fact have secure rights to land. One way is to measure a key aspect of secure land rights –documented evidence of such rights. Such an indicator could include a range of documents relevant to local and national contexts and reflecting a range of rights related to land. While not perfect, this measure would go a long way toward revealing whether women in fact are realizing their rights on the ground.

But even within this category, it is also important to recognize that different ways of measuring documentation can paint two very different pictures. Consider the difference between measuring the percent of women who own land versus the percent of parcels owned by women.

In Nigeria, for example, data on the percentage of land owned by women is skewed by women like Folorunsho Alakija, an oil magnate and philanthropist worth more than Oprah Winfrey and whose real estate holdings alone are valued at more than $100 million.

But data on the percentage of women who own land reveal important trends that reflect the reality of millions of Nigerian women: A 2012 report on gender in Nigeria noted that in 2006, just over seven percent of women in the country owned land, compared to 38 percent of the men. What’s more, the percent of women who own land has been falling.

We need to ensure that current efforts to formulate a new path forward and to identify the missing dimensions of the Millennium Development Goals are not an exercise in futility that will leave us with a measure of the growing wealth of developing country elites or one that reflects theory rather than reality. We need to guard against the natural inclination to search under the streetlight because it is easier.

To ensure that we achieve gains in poverty eradication, gender equality, food security, rule of law, and environmental sustainability, we need to focus on our prior blind spots, shining a light in areas previously largely unmeasured to ensure that growing numbers of women have real secure rights to land and other productive resources.

D. Hien Tran is an attorney and is the director of global advocacy at Landesa, a global development non-profit that works to secure land rights for the world’s poor women and men. 

Get The Chicago Council’s FREE Global Food for Thought News Brief delivered to your inbox weekly! Sign up here.


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.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.