USAID Land Champion: Zemen Haddis, PhD

Tell us about yourself.

As a Senior Agricultural Policy Advisor in the USAID Ethiopia Mission, I am responsible for providing advice on land and agricultural policies to the Mission, and I design and manage land administration and development projects. I currently manage the Land Administration to Nurture Development (LAND) project that aims to improve the tenure security of rural people in Ethiopia by strengthening land legal frameworks, improving the capacity of land administration institutions, certifying community land rights, and promoting research and learning. I serve as a co-chair of the national land administration and use task team and participate in other land platforms working to improve the tenure security of landholders. I wrote a number of papers and presented some of them at World Bank conferences. I have also published a doctoral dissertation entitled “Implications of Land Policy for Rural-Urban Migration”.

Why is land tenure/property rights important to your work at USAID?

USAID allocates about 800 million dollars annually to support economic growth, agriculture, food security, health, and education in Ethiopia. To achieve assistance objectives and sustain development gains, it is paramount to secure land tenure security and property rights. The issue of tenure security and property rights has attracted the attention of leadership at both USAID and the Government of Ethiopia (GOE). If tenure security and property rights of citizens are protected, this would help attract more foreign direct investment, encourage farmers to invest in their land, reduce conflict, and improve land governance.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see in addressing land tenure/property rights issues in Ethiopia? And how are we tackling these challenges?

Ethiopia is governed under an ethnic-based federal system. Regional states are constitutionally mandated to administer land, while the federal government provides the broader legal framework. Regions enact their respective land laws based on the federal legal framework, but the regions determine the detailed land administration provisions such as the length of land rental periods according to regional contexts and political interests. Although such a decentralized land administration system is helpful when working with each region separately on ways to improve tenure security by relaxing restrictions, for example, it also leads to heterogeneous land administration systems and inconsistent land laws throughout the country. In addition, the Federal Government takes a very long time to amend land laws because it is very difficult to achieve consensus from the regional states.

USAID has introduced an evidence-based, land policy development approach by involving local universities in assessments of land laws and related research. Local universities have played an important role in identifying issues and suggesting solutions to regional governments. The evidence-based approach has been effective at encouraging the federal and regional governments to revise existing land laws and to amend restrictive articles.

What are some successes USAID has achieved in the land sector?

The issue of land tenure security has remained a politically sensitive issue in Ethiopia since land became a state property in 1975. The GOE leadership once mentioned that land policy will be changed on the burial ground of the ruling party. However, despite this firm stance of the ruling party and government on land, USAID has worked tirelessly to convince the Government of Ethiopia to work on amending its land policy. After a USAID and GOE joint assessment of the status of land administration in 2004, GOE become open to working on land administration and policy issues.

In 2005, USAID launched the first ever land administration project that helped to review Ethiopia’s legal frameworks on land, pilot certification of landholdings, raise public awareness of land policies, and improve the capacity of land institutions. Since then, USAID has been at the forefront of the land sector by supporting the enactment and implementation of land laws, introducing GIS-referenced landholding certificates, building capacity of land institutions, encouraging research and learning on effective land administration, and expanding land certification to pastoral areas. USAID’s support and achievements have attracted other donors such as the UK’s Department for International Development to invest more than $100 million to expand land mapping and registration activities to millions of small-scale farmers. Recently, USAID has assisted with the surveying and registration of communal holdings in pastoral areas. If GOE issues communal land certification as planned, it will be the first time that pastoral communities’ land rights have been formally recognized in the long history of the country.

Final thoughts?

The experience in Ethiopia with regards to influencing land policy taught us the need to be patient to achieve results. Although the initial attitude of government officials towards addressing tenure security issues was discouraging, our sustained long-term effort helped them understand the importance of land sector reform. There are still many issues requiring the attention of decision makers to improve tenure security and property rights, but we remain optimistic that government officials are open to continued dialogue and action. In fact, the successful introduction of land use planning into GOE policy is encouraging and is paving the way to work further on securing smallholder land use rights and avoiding land allocation for investments without adequate studies and consultation of communities.