USAID’s Dr. Gregory Myers on the Future of Land Rights

By Dr. Gregory Myers, USAID Division Chief, Land Tenure and Property Rights

USAID recently sponsored Devex’s Land Matters campaign in order to raise awareness about the importance of property rights. Throughout this campaign I stress that secure land tenure and property rights (LTPR) is the gateway to economic growth, food security, sustainable natural resources management, and other development goals.

I participated in the final event of the month-long campaign, a filmed discussion on the future of land rights, facilitated by Karol Boudreaux, Director of Investments, Omidyar Network. We were joined by Dr. Steven Lawry, Global Lead, Land Tenure & Property Rights, DAI and Tiernan Mennen, Director, South America, Chemonics. Between us, we have spent decades working on strengthening land rights. However, as we all agreed, this is the first time there has been a consensus among United Nations organizations, the World Bank, technical experts, civil society organizations, and many bilateral donors that secure LTPR is fundamental to development goals.

Currently, the U.S. Government invests more in LTPR programs than any other bilateral donor—with 44 projects in 36 countries. However, this work represents only a small fraction of the U.S. foreign aid budget, which is less than 1% of the overall U.S. budget. Consequently, we make strategic investments where small amounts of money can lead to measurable impacts and programs that can be replicated by host governments and donor partners. The investments we make in strengthening ownership rights create choices, which can lead to economic empowerment for families and communities.

One good example of our work is in Ethiopia where USAID helped 600,000 families plot their land and secure documents that prove their rights to it. Through this project, some women who leased out land found out that the area of their plot was actually twice as large as they earlier thought. They raised land rents and our analysis showed that overall, household incomes increased dramatically—by 10 to potentially 40% in the area. This led to changes in household decision making, including increased investment in children’s education.

Focusing on women’s property rights has proven to be an effective way to change lives through relatively small amounts of money. A change as simple and easy as including a line for a woman’s name on a title or deed to a house creates rights for her that lead to entirely different household economic choices. When women have access to land and secure rights, they increase their income and make investments in food and their children’s futures. Focusing on women increases USAID’s impact in a country for no additional cost.

When we multiply these efforts across Ethiopia, Africa, and the entire spectrum of countries worldwide that have weak property rights systems, we will see a tremendous impact on incomes, economic growth, and food security. Of course, the trick is finding an appropriate model for each country.

An appropriate model is both realistic and fair. USAID recognizes that private sector investments in agriculture can scale up food production, but can also create a power imbalance. Therefore, we work with governments to ensure that they recognize the land and resource rights of communities as part of or before large scale investments are made. We also help communities build their capacity to negotiate and benefit from outside investments. Then when these two sides come together, both can profit.

We have reached an historic moment where international donors are coordinating to strengthen land rights for people in developing countries. Last month, the Global Donor Working Group on Land – an organization of donors and development agencies working to strengthen land governance – held its first official meeting in Rome. I am happy to note that USAID is a founding member of this new body. One of the first tasks of the Working Group was to create a database of all donor-funded land governance programs. This donor database – which USAID played a lead role in developing – will be launched publicly in January, 2014.

It is exciting to see a consensus emerging among the global donor community that secure land tenure and property rights are the gateway to achieving international development goals, and that by working together we can insure better use of public resources and the application of data-driven best practices. In ten to twenty years I expect we’ll see new forms of governance systems around property rights emerge that are much more democratic, and equitable (particularly for women) and promote better economic returns. Vesting rights in people empowers them to make decisions about their assets, and thus their future.

If you are interested in the future of land rights, I encourage you to watch the video of the discussion. I will continue this dialogue–answering your questions–through Twitter on Thursday, November 14, 2:00 – 3:00 PM (EST) during an Ask-the-expert session hosted by @USAID. You may submit questions now by tweeting #AskUSAID.