Status of the Voluntary Guidelines: Where we are, where we are going

Congressional Briefing hosted by Congresswoman Betty McCollum on March, 28 2014
Remarks by Dr. Gregory Myers, Land Tenure and Property Rights Division Chief, USAID (as written)

First, I would like to thank Congresswoman McCollum for hosting this event and ActionAid for organizing and bringing all of us together for this important briefing. I would also like to thank Congresswoman McCollum’s staff for their attention to these critical issues.

For 18 months, I had the honor to Chair, on behalf of the United States, the Open-Ended Working Group that negotiated the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (commonly known as the VGs). The VGs were negotiated through a broad and inclusive participatory process – under the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) – that involved governments, civil society organizations and the private sector. The VGs were unanimously endorsed by 96 member countries in May 2012. With endorsement, the global community demonstrated their recognition that improving land and other resource governance systems is a strategy for improving food security, promoting sustainable development, limiting conflict, and reducing extreme poverty.

While the development and endorsement of the VGs represents an important achievement, their ultimate value will be determined by their implementation and by measured improvements in the lives and livelihoods of women, men, children and other vulnerable people around the globe.

Where we are now
Having had the opportunity to participate in these negotiations, and managing the largest global bi-lateral program supporting the VGs, I would like to offer an assessment of what has been achieved thus far and what remains to be done.

In the almost two years since the VGs were adopted, much progress has been made. The VGs have become ‘the’ guiding doctrine for emerging economy governments to develop laws and policies that strengthen the protection of property rights for women and men. Donors and development agencies, including USAID, are beginning to align their land and resource governance programs more closely with the principles and practices outlined in the VGs.

Today, in 32 programs across 25 countries, USAID is deploying over $300 million in programs that implement many of the principles and practices outlined in the VGs. These programs help to clarify and strengthen the land tenure and property rights of all members of society — enabling broad-based economic growth, gender equality, reduced incidence of conflicts, enhanced food security, improved resilience to climate change, and effective natural resource management.

For example, in Ethiopia, USAID is building on the success of a series of programs that strengthened property rights of smallholder farmers by expanding the program to a traditionally vulnerable group: pastoralists. Over the past six years under this program, USAID-supported certification efforts led to the issuance of more than 500,000 land certificates to over 230,000 households. Under these programs, boundaries are clarified and validated by neighbors and community members prior to certification, reducing the likelihood of future disputes. The certificates, which can be transferred to descendants, give holders the right to use and profit from the land. This arrangement represents an important shift from the previous system, which was marked by frequent land seizures, redistribution, and declining agricultural productivity. Evidence from evaluations by the World Bank and the Government of Ethiopia suggests that household productivity increased measurably in areas where certificates were issued. In one region where the certification program was implemented, crop yields increased by 10 to potentially 40 percent per acre with no other inputs. USAID’s Ethiopia program is closely aligned with the principles outlined in the VGs.

The brief and infographic that we handed out have additional information about how USAID is supporting implementation of the VGs and making secure land tenure and property rights a reality for people and communities around the world.

The way forward
What comes next? While USAID and other development organizations have made progress supporting implementation of the VGs, more remains to be done. At the global level, we need, first, more specific guidance on how to implement the VGs. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is contributing to the development of technical guides and training programs that support VG implementation. This is a good start.

We also need better coordination and information sharing among development partners. All too often our development efforts are hampered by a lack of coordination among relevant partners striving toward common goals. The VGs represent an ambitious global agenda; achieving success will require coordinated action by civil society, governments and the private sector.

Last year more than 25 donors and development organizations came together to form the Global Donor Working Group on Land. One of our first objectives was to develop a common platform for sharing data and best practices on land programs that support the VGs. USAID led this initiative. Over the past year, we managed a project that collected information on the land and resource governance programs funded by members of the Global Donor Working Group on Land. The result of this effort is a comprehensive database of 445 programs, funded by 16 donors and development agencies, being implemented in 119 countries, with a total value of over $2 billion.

This information can help stakeholders identify opportunities to coordinate activities and leverage resources for greater impact. The database initiative also provides stakeholders with a platform to share knowledge and best practices, potentially improving the efficiency and effectiveness of current and future programs that support the VGs.

We can bridge the gap between what the global community has agreed to and what is understood and pursued at the ground-level in developing countries. At the local level, we need to experiment with new investment models that will promote smallholder agriculture and/or create opportunities for smallholders to link with commercial investors in ways that are secure and profitable for all.

The development community should also recognize that the private sector plays a key role in the success of implementing the VGs. The private sector is moving forward—in consultation with civil society, host country governments, and donor organizations—to develop better practices for acquiring land for commercial agriculture, extractives, and biofuels. Last year, The Coca-Cola Company negotiated an agreement with Oxfam to respect local property rights along its supply chain, and PepsiCo has recently agreed to do the same. The global community, with U.S. leadership, is in the process of developing guidelines for the private sector: the Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment (known as the RAI), which are also being developed under the UN Committee on World Food Security. These principles will provide a framework to guide global corporate social responsibility initiatives, and individual investment contracts covering all types of investment in agriculture. In other words, the RAI will provide a framework for the private sector – much in the same way the VGs provide a framework for the public sector. Responsible investment in agriculture can lead to improvements in food security and economic growth.

Another possible next step could be the development of a globally-accepted certification standard – as was done with Fair Trade Coffee or the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. An industry certification, whether added to existing commodity standards or organized as a stand-alone initiative, could set an acceptable expectation for how companies will invest and conduct business with respect to land rights in emerging economies. Certification of land-based investments could also help build the private sector expertise required to effectively manage land throughout supply chains. Such a scheme could also empower civil society to monitor investments in a more systematic way and allow consumers to reward companies that behave responsibly and apply pressure to those that do not.

USAID appreciates civil society organizations bringing the issue of land tenure to the attention of policy leaders in the US. We welcome this opportunity to share progress and challenges with you and our colleagues on the Hill. To help ensure a stable world — where market-based democracies thrive and trade expands, where we create jobs- at home and abroad — we must focus on empowering every global citizen to make individual decisions about how they will acquire, use, enjoy, and dispose of property. The Voluntary Guidelines help all actors design and implement policies and programs that make secure property rights a reality.