I just came back from a trip to Russia. Back in 2006 and 2007, I had traveled to Russia frequently as the lead for the Cadastre Development Project. This time - as a Global Lead for Land and Geospatial at the World Bank - I saw something I did not expect to see.
Privatization of real-estate properties and protecting property rights became two important pillars of transformation following the end of the Soviet era. But, while they were important policy goals in the 1990s, the system did not really function properly: rights were not fully protected and people waited for many months to register property transactions.
Within one week in July the Sydney suburb of Rhodes was transformed from a quiet neighbourhood to what resident Joyce Wong described as a "place of carnage" with hundreds of people wandering around like "zombies".
"The car hooting noise was incessant, on weekends you felt like you were under siege and the rubbish and litter all over the public areas was terrible," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email from her home in the Australian city.
The reason for the constant disturbance? Pokemon Go, the latest craze in augmented reality.
The game took the world by storm this summer as animated creatures began appearing in the most unexpected places - all through the lens of a smartphone.
The global popularity of the game and other video games that put digital "characters" into real places – from private homes to shops, parks and even monuments and museums – has fuelled debate on land rights, the legal boundaries of private property, and what constitutes trespass.
Experts say the inter-section between virtual reality and property law is not clear, and nobody really knows what the rights of property owners are when digital characters or structures appear on their land.
"A lot of people are convinced that because they own their property, they ought to be able to control the virtual space," said Brian Wassom, a lawyer at Michigan's Warner Norcross & Judd LLP with expertise in augmented reality.
"I think they're going to come to the answer which I have come to, which is: no, you can't," he said in a phone interview.
He said land rights only apply when there has been something or someone physically present on the property.
However, this distinction is becoming blurred as more and more examples of the power the digital world can hold over specific geographical spots emerge.
This post is co-authored with Michael O’Sullivan.
Effective property rights matter for development. And heck, they even got a couple of shout outs in the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals. And we know from earlier work that weaker rights can lead to reduced agricultural productivity. So what happens when folks move to better property rights?
Melinda and Bill Gates have made an annual tradition of publishing their thoughts on international development and its key challenges. Given the substance, I assume these letters reflect an annual manifesto for the organisation they head, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Last year, I wrote about how the Gates Annual Letter was disappointing, perhaps not in the context of what the BMGF itself does, but what it ought to be doing, given its $42 bn muscle and its influential promoter, Bill Gates.
This year, the letter makes four “big bets” for 2030: child deaths will go down by half, and more diseases will be eradicated than ever before; Africa will be able to feed itself; mobile banking will help the poor radically transform their lives; and better software will revolutionise learning. In short, fast-tracking the identification technological fixes and expanding their reach over the next fifteen years will deliver a better world.
Unfortunately, these bets seem to me to be wildly optimistic. I may be quibbling, but from what we have learnt from research, there seem to be many reasons to suggest that we should be cautious with our optimism regarding what we can achieve with technology. The complexities of working on power, politics and implementation find no mention in the letter. Let us look a little more closely at each one of the bets to find out why that matters so much.
In September 2013, four elderly sisters in Botswana were finally and definitively allowed to remain in the ancestral home where they had spent most of their lives — the result of their own tenacity and determination that a young nephew could not step in and take ownership of a property they had lovingly maintained.
This landmark decision by the highest court in Botswana, the Court of Appeal, followed five years of efforts by women’s networks and legal associations who helped the sisters bring their claim. The judges decided that customary laws favoring the rights of the youngest male heir were simply out of date.
“The Constitutional values of equality before the law and the increased leveling of the power structures with more and more women heading households and participating with men as equals in the public sphere and increasingly in the private sphere demonstrate that there is no rational and justifiable basis for sticking to the narrow norms of days gone by when such norms go against current value systems,” wrote Justice Lesetedi of the Botswana Court of Appeal.
The reform of discriminatory laws can lead to transformative change.
When asked about what she thought was key in advancing women’s rights, Cherie Blair, lawyer and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, replied, “I believe that actually financial independence is very important so we need a financial framework that recognizes women as equals, that enables them to have access to finance, access to capital to have their own financial independence.”
And this brings to the table another question: What are the hurdles that women face when trying to access capital?
For many women entrepreneurs across the world, getting a loan to start or expand their business can prove challenging. This is particularly true in the developing world where banks often require borrowers to pledge their home or land as collateral. Women, who tend to lack such assets, are placed at a disadvantage. Legal restrictions on women’s property rights can exacerbate the problem.
So I come back from vacation to find out that I was part of a randomized experiment in my absence. No, this had nothing to do with the wonders of airline travel in Europe (which don’t add that frisson of excitement through random cancellations like their American brethren), but rather two of our co-bloggers trying to figure out if the blog actually makes people recognize me and Jed more (here are links to parts
China looks set to see a boom in access to finance since the passage in 2007 of the Property Rights Law. Last week, the Financial Times reported on the newfound ability of farmers to monetise their land. Some farmers are selling to larger, more efficient companies, while others are taking advantage of the opportunity to use their land as collateral: