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Why strengthening land rights strengthens development

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Aerial view of the landscape around Halimun Salak National Park, West Java, Indonesia.
© Kate Evans/CIFOR

This blog post was originally published on Project Syndicate.

Today, only 30% of the world’s population has legally registered rights to their land and home, with the poor and politically marginalized especially likely to suffer from insecure land tenure. Unless this changes, the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals will be impossible to achieve.

For most of the world’s poor and vulnerable people, secure property rights, including land tenure, are a rarely accessible luxury.  Unless this changes, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be impossible to achieve.

Land tenure determines who can use land, for how long, and under what conditions.  Tenure arrangements may be based both on official laws and policies, and on informal customs. If those arrangements are secure, users of land have an incentive not just to implement best practices for their use of it (paying attention to, say, environmental impacts), but also to invest more.

An international consensus has emerged regarding the importance of secure land tenure for development outcomes. In 2012, the Committee on World Food Security, based at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, endorsed the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenureas the global norm on this front.

Yet the norm is not being applied widely enough. In fact, only 30% of the world’s population has legally registered rights to their land and homes, with the poor and politically marginalized especially likely to suffer from insecure tenure.

In Romania, for example, many Roma have less secure farmland tenure than their non-Roma neighbors. Likewise, in Southeast Asia, hill tribes rarely have legal rights to their indigenous holdings, which are often located in state forests. 

In Zimbabwe, a customary divorce settlement may result in allocating all family lands and property (and even children) to the husband, with the wife left to return to her father or another male relative. In Sarajevo, thousands of apartments have been deemed illegal due to outdated urban plans and missing building permits, locking families’ most valuable assets outside the mainstream economy.

By stifling economic growth, inadequate land-tenure systems perpetuate poverty and marginalization.  But the opposite is also true: strong, properly enforced land rights can boost growth, reduce poverty, strengthen human capital, promote economic fairness (including gender equity), and support social progress more broadly.

Moreover, secure land rights are essential to reduce disaster risk and build climate resilience, which is an urgent imperative at a time when climate change is already fueling more – and more frequent – extreme weather. When such disasters displace people and destroy their homes, properly maintained land records provide the baseline for compensation and reconstruction of shelters, and help affected communities rebuild better.

Reflecting the importance of secure land ownership to the SDGs’ success, the World Bank Group is now working with developing countries to improve their land-tenure systems and expand the coverage of legally recognized and registered rights. For example, in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Sumatra provinces, we are helping to promote the standardization of land rights, with particular attention to women and indigenous communities, while defining state forests’ boundaries using participatory methods for mapping and registration.

Already, World Bank Group efforts have enabled one million hectares of indigenous land in Nicaragua – over 30% of the country’s territory – to be demarcated, titled, and registered, a process that has benefited some of the country’s most vulnerable groups. This initiative also aimed to improve Nicaragua’s capacity to respond promptly and effectively to emergencies.

New projects are now being prepared in Mozambique and Tanzania to provide customary settlements with communal titles that will ensure legal recognition of their common holdings, thereby strengthening the protection and management of these assets. In the 2017-2019 period, the World Bank’s portfolio of investment lending for land administration and security of tenure is projected to grow by 39%. 

This is important progress. But realizing key SDG targets – which are fully aligned with the World Bank Group’s own twin goals of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity – will require a much larger investment program focused on strengthening land tenure across the developing world. To that end, the World Bank Group is engaging with partners at the local, national, and global levels to strengthen countries’ commitments and mobilize resources  to achieve the ambitious target of achieving adequate land and property rights for all by 2030.

Land is at the heart of development.   Secure land tenure is thus vital to building the inclusive, resilient, and sustainable communities that will propel economic and social progress well into the future.


Mahmoud Mohieldin

Senior Vice President for the 2030 Development Agenda, United Nations Relations, and Partnerships

Anna Wellenstein

Regional Director, East Asia and Pacific, Sustainable Development Practice Group, World Bank

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