Land policy makers need to focus on how change happens

Agriculture, Governance, Livelihoods

As delegates start filing in for the World Bank’s annual Land and Poverty Conference, Ross Clarke explains why a critical point of discussion should be the divergence between land policy ‘the idea’ and land rights ‘the reality’.

‘The value of an idea lies in the using of it.’ Thomas Edison.

As the global land rush intensifies, commitments towards improved land governance in recent years appear to be ringing hollow. Today, secure rights to land are becoming more accessible for those with wealth and power, while pervading insecurity remains the norm for those at the margins. With Global Witness claiming that 49 million hectares have already changed hands or are under negotiation over the last decade, the need to translate the idea into practice gets more urgent by
the day.

Coca-Cola executives now rub shoulders with land officials from Malawi and community groups from PakistanThe Land and Poverty conference is perhaps the most prominent policy space, talk shop cum trade show in the land sector. It gathers policy elites, practitioners and researchers from across the globe, and in recent years as attention on land policy has increased, the likes of Coca-Cola executives now rub shoulders with land officials from Malawi and community groups
from Pakistan. As before, Land and Poverty will discuss progress on land policy and implementation. What report card should delegates be giving? 

Much of the attention in the land policy space has been captured by the much heralded Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure (‘the Guidelines’). Developed through a lengthy consultative process and endorsed by the Committee on World Food Security in 2012, the Guidelines marked a milestone towards the achievement of equitable land policy globally. While far from perfect and the product of political compromise, the Guidelines for the first
time provided an authoritative (albeit non-binding) framework on how equitable rights to land can be advanced and protected. Almost three years on, Land and Poverty delegates should be asking themselves what, if anything, have the Guidelines achieved for those whose land rights are most at risk? 

What, if anything, have the Guidelines achieved for those whose land rights are most at risk?Understandably, the initial focus once the Guidelines were complete was translating the technical language into something that can be put into practice. The common refrain from private sector actors interested in engaging was: ‘give us something we can work with’. As a result, a proliferation of guides, technical advice and consultancies were born. At last count, Oxfam is aware of at least nine guides that have been developed. FAO alone, having finalised five technical guides, has another eight in the pipeline. While the Guidelines speak to a broad range of stakeholders, and each guide was developed for a specific purpose and audience, at present guides are attracting too much attention and investment.  

Although the development of practical guides is generally to be commended, this has resulted in negative consequences. A lack of coordination has created overlap, particularly with guides targeted at investors, and this has drained resources and shifted energy away from action that can directly promote change. Oxfam is now getting asked ‘which guide should I follow?’ We do not have a simple answer. So some initiatives intended to operationalise the Guidelines are now having the opposite effect, complicating matters further, and taking resources away from where
they are needed most. 

Land reform – whether linked to the Guidelines or otherwise – is inherently complex and politicalThis is not to suggest that translating the Guidelines from paper to reality is a simple exercise that should be rushed into, far from it. For Oxfam, land reform – whether linked to the Guidelines or otherwise – is inherently complex and political. Powerful vested interests must be addressed, meaningful incentives must be in place to make reform viable, and any new initiatives must build on existing policy reform efforts. These are immense challenges to
overcome. The fact that much progressive land policy and legislation remains unimplemented across Sub-Saharan Africa attests to the obstacles to reform, even where there is a degree of political will for change.

Yet the current focus on guides overly assumes that implementing the Guidelines is a technical, apolitical exercise. In such circumstances, land policy reform is generally elite driven and ignores the voice of the women and men whose land is under threat. Given the track record of such an approach, it is unlikely to achieve meaningful, lasting change. 

What is required is a deep understanding of the political economy of land reform in any given context. Based on a clear analysis of what enables and blocks reform, a clear picture of how change happens with respect to land governance is critical. And this requires looking beyond policy change on paper to determine which initiatives will result in improved land related outcomes on the ground. 

Accountability mechanisms which hold governments and the private sector to account for the standards embodied in the Guidelines are one underutilised approach. It is active citizens, effective institutions and a vibrant civil society that are critical levers of change – a point lost in the rush to produce technical guides.

Oxfam is therefore calling for increased coordination amongst agencies and donors engaged in moving the Guidelines forward. This needs to be combined with a reprioritisation of attention and resources. We need less guides and more action. Crucially, land reform requires accountability mechanisms to accompany technical solutions. 

Let the Guidelines not be another aspirational policy statement that remains unfulfilled. Policy makers must ensure these excellent ideas are utilised to the full. Let us ensure that practical, coordinated technical guidance is available for those that require it. But above all, let us ensure that those whose land rights are most insecure are not left without support while delegates in Washington (Oxfam’s included) discuss another guide.

Read more

Author: Ross Clarke
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.