Ask the Expert: An Interview with Heather Huntington, Cloudburst

Heather Huntington presenting at the 2016 World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty

LandLinks caught up with Dr. Heather Huntington, Land Tenure and Natural Resource Management Impact Evaluation Specialist with The Cloudburst Group to discuss a key research paper on tenure security that she has been developing under USAID’s Evaluation, Research and Communication (ERC) Project. The research compares datasets across seven impact evaluations in customary systems across Africa to provide a greater understanding of tenure and local governance perceptions.

Here is what Dr. Huntington had to say (this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity):

“One of the valuable things about this research is the detailed, targeted information on tenure security issues and local governance context. The research is based on a portfolio of impact evaluations that have been designed to capture similar household and village level data across multiple countries. The datasets are based on comprehensive survey instruments that were developed with the goal of promoting cross-site comparisons through comparable modules and questions. As such, the paper draws on several different indicators for tenure security and perception of challenges—and it does this across diverse contexts, analyzing the same set of challenges and replicating them across countries.

Across the datasets, we have a set of modules that specifically ask about local governance challenges, successes, and have numerous indicators to draw from. The paper provides information on people’s experience with land conflict and working with local systems to manage that conflict. The research also provides data on the proliferation of land documentation and what percentage of households have it as well as who feel that land documentation would improve their tenure security.

The findings have been surprising:

  • A high level of tenure security expressed by the constituents.
  • High level of satisfaction with local authorities.
  • The overwhelming majority of survey respondents don’t actually feel that their land and access to land is under threat. They feel that their local leaders are protecting the land to the best of their abilities given the local context.
  • We’re seeing a trend of very low land documentation but still high assessments of tenure security. One of the implications here is, do we need to rethink this emphasis on land documentation in customary contexts, especially development programming that pushes individualized documentation? Or, would it make sense to focus on higher level customary boundaries and strengthening local institutions to manage their own lands?
  • In Liberia, there’s a lot of large-scale lease activity occurring, but only 7 percent of our respondents said they were worried about losing their community land to investors. In contrast, in our study area in Zambia, we had over 25 percent of respondents reply that they were concerned about land reallocation for investment purposes. We would have expected to see those numbers flipped around, due to the expectation of a higher degree of investment pressure in Liberia. This is something that needs to be explored in both of these evaluations (Tenure and Global Climate Change and Community Land Protection Program) and highlights the importance of within country context.”

How might this research be used going forward?

“Having these datasets and the structured similarities between them opens up huge possibilities for research potential. Agricultural economists, researchers, and students can use this paper as the tip of the iceberg of what can be done with this data. With a large number of people focused on these issues and writing innovative papers and reports, it should really grow the knowledge base and expand the literature exponentially.

The goal of the paper is to provide an analysis of the similarities and differences that we see across USAID’s portfolio of seven land tenure impact evaluations, where we are using questions and modules that are the same or similar. It’s very innovative and exciting from a research perspective.

The paper provides a basic overview of each country and the land tenure context and then presents the topical areas across the data. However, the research is not meant to be an ethnographic, anthropological deep dive into each of the country contexts. This is more of a high-level analysis so researchers who are specialists can look at our reports and data and go forward with more nuanced analyses.

We have extremely comprehensive datasets and if we have an overview that allows people to get a high-level understanding of what the datasets can do, they can then do more focused analysis within a country or move from this paper and look at some issue in a more rigorous way. In that way, the tenure security paper can be seen as an introduction and briefer for what USAID’s portfolio does and the research potential.”

How do you see this paper fitting into the existing literature?

“A 2014 publication by Steve Lawry looked at reasons for why we don’t see a lot of impact from land titling on land investment in Africa as compared to Latin America and Asia. This paper provides justification for Lawry’s hypothesis of the “Africa-effect.” (The “Africa-effect” refers to the Lawry’s hypothesis that Africa’s customary setting may confer a high level of baseline tenure security and therefore lead to more mixed investment results from land titling programs. This is in comparison to the more positive economic and food security gains seen from land tenure formalization programs in Asia and Latin America.)

This kind of research hasn’t been possible before because there wasn’t the ability to compare these statistics across different datasets within customary contexts—this is largely because the datasets haven’t had the same questions or so many questions focused on tenure and local resource governance. But we’ve been able to include similar questions in our research designs across all seven impact evaluations and so develop data that can be compared across cultural contexts.

There are a lot assumptions in current literature about customary tenure as insecure and local governance being problematic, and numerous development programs are designed based on these premises. This research will provide a lot more information about the customary context and local governance for each of these countries and show where academics, researchers, and practitioners may need to rethink assumptions that they’re basing programming design upon.”

The full tenure security paper will be published later in 2017.