In a new book released Monday, the World Bank's Africa Region convincingly argued for "Securing Africa's Land for Shared Prosperity" by recording land rights for both individuals and groups. That’s mainly because at a time when vastly-increased commodity demand has led to a series of widely publicized “land grabs” and urban expansion, the potential benefits from securing rights have greatly increased in several ways.
First, equity and efficiency. Poor and traditionally disadvantaged people, including women, have the least access to land rights, so securing their rights can provide them with access to a key productive resource. Also, if land rights are secured, land users will be more likely to invest in land improvement and modern technology to improve the efficiency of land use.
Second, growth and transformation. Transferable rights can contribute to the structural transformation of agrarian economies by encouraging individuals to join the non-agricultural economy, improving financial markets to attract investments, and allowing landholders to exchange land with others who can make better use of it.
Finally, governance. Once land information is in the public domain, secretive dealings become more difficult, the resolution of long-standing conflicts becomes more rewarding, and planning and tax collection are facilitated.
At the same time, a range of participatory options to secure rights is now available, with the cost only being a fraction of what it had been five to 10 years ago. Other key advances include work on the continuum of land rights, legal innovations by countries that make documenting land rights much easier, and high level initiatives such as the G8 commitment to land transparency.
The book, which draws on contributions by a large number of Bank staff in operations and research, including me, and technical experts in partner organizations, marks a major shift from previous approaches in three ways. First, it clearly recognizes the need for interventions based on local circumstances regarding a spectrum of rights, rather than a patent recipe (e.g. titling). Second, beyond drawing lessons from cases outside of Africa, it is based on in-depth impact assessments of African property-right reforms in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ghana, and Benin, highlighting the scope and potential impact of innovations. Finally, it is based on partnerships with regional institutions such as the AU/UNECA/AfDB African Land Policy Initiative and the countries’ commitment to implementing the Voluntary Guidelines on tenure of land, fisheries and forests.
What’s next? The book rightly argues for a massive scale-up of investments to secure community and individual land at the country level, and identifies a broad range of financing required. As these will invariably touch on issues of power and the political economy, these need to be further elaborated at the country level, based on stakeholders’ understanding of challenges in the land sector and consensus on priorities and milestones.
The Land Governance Assessment Framework (LGAF) can be one avenue to push this in a coherent way and provide a basis for regularly tracking progress and identify emerging challenges and risks. This is particularly important as any big push to register rights, if not accompanied by institutional changes to ensure records remain current and reliable, will not be sustainable or realize few benefits.
There is also an enormous potential for private and public sectors to innovate, identifying and documenting the most participatory and cost-effective ways of securing land rights in African settings. Nothing will be as effective in promoting the policy dialogue and supporting a massive scale-up as having local researchers document what works and what doesn’t, as well as quantify associated benefits based on rigorous impact evaluation. If it is followed by a second volume along these lines very soon, this great book will truly have achieved its purpose.