Land title alone won't end poverty – but it's a start

A farmer sifts a basketful of grain in India. Granting land titles to women do not automatically mean economic development as societal and customary laws take precedent and limit the practice of their rights as land owners. Ray Witlin / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Seventy percent of people living in extreme poverty are women — and they own less than 2 percent of the world’s land. So would increasing women’s land ownership reduce poverty levels worldwide and improve economic development?

It is an appealing proposition. But these statistics, commonly cited in development discussions about land and poverty, are somewhat misleading. New research is showing that the international drive to map land ownership worldwide and give people title is proving more complex when it comes to delivering positive development at the other end.

Economic thinking stretching back as far as Montesquieu and Adam Smith in the 18thcentury to Hernando de Soto Polar today in his influential 2000 book “The Mystery of Capital” has argued that unlocking the surplus value in land is a crucial step toward economic development. Land title allows an owner to use the asset as collateral for credit, which gives access to seed, fertiliser and equipment, raising the productivity of land and reducing human labour. The result is more free capital — both monetary and human.

It looks like a win-win, so no wonder land titling has turned into a major development goal, especially for women. The United Nations and the World Bank back programs to build national land registries to document land ownership in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Certainly the work has delivered some positive results. In one Sao Paulo community, for instance, the Brazilian government issued land titles to more than 85,000 families in 2007. Child labour in those families declined by 6.8 hours a week, providing more time for schooling, compared with a neighboring community where titles had not yet been given, according to a World Bank study.

In Buenos Aires, researchers Ernesto Schargrodsky and Sebastian Galiani similarly found that squatters awarded clear land title by the government increased their investment in homes, reduced their household size and improved their children’s education between 2003 and 2007 compared with squatters in the same community whose awards of land title were tied up in legal wrangling in the court system.

Such studies suggest a causal relationship between land ownership and economic well-being. But it is not a straight line. Land title alone is no guaranteed route to prosperity — especially when it comes to women. All too often, customary law as opposed to national or constitutional law, tradition and familial relationships trump the legal document and weaken ownership rights, new research is showing. 

In Bangladesh, for example, the state gives men and women equal rights to buy and own land. But inheritance is governed by Shariah law, which can disadvantage women and girls severely limiting their rights in practice, according to a new study for the World Bank that was arranged by TrustLaw Connect, part of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Likewise, in rural areas of Sudan, customary laws rooted in patriarchy take precedent over national law, which states women and men have equal land rights. Male heads of household tend to control land in rural areas, denying women full benefits even when they live and work on the land, the study found.

Equally powerful factors to consider are governance issues, said Claudia Williamson, economics professor at Mississippi State University. She has studied communities near Cusco, Peru, with Carrie Kerekes of Florida Gulf Coast University and found that a government push to provide land title provided limited benefits because private banks refused to accept the title documents as collateral, reflecting their lack of institutional confidence in the central government. 

Where the rule of law is precarious and trust in government weak, land title can prove little more than a piece of paper, and land grabbing can continue to thrive, as my colleague Thin Win Lei regularly reports from Southeast Asia.

Take Kampong Speu Province in Cambodia. Some villagers held documents proving ownership of their land, and yet their homes were razed, their farms and forests ploughed over and their water diverted to irrigate a plantation, Win reported earlier this month. They were told their land had been leased to a company owned by a powerful senator and businessman in the ruling Cambodia People’s Party for a sugar plantation.

Land titling is a first step but does not automatically unlock the door to economic prosperity, least of all for women. A complex overlapping web of rules, regulations and practices all too easily undermine land rights and without addressing them the promise of land registries will disappoint.

One footnote: That oft-cited figure of women owning less than 2 percent of land looks rather misleading — at least in Africa, the continent with the most unused tillable land. Research by Cheryl Doss of Yale University and others finds that women landholders in eight African countries averaged 24 percent, and using a different database, ownership was 39 percent.

It will take more than women’s land ownership to end extreme poverty. 

Want to know more? Check out Land Matters, a new campaign to showcase innovative solutions in the areas of food security, economic development, conservation and more.

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  • Stella dawson profile

    Stella Dawson

    Stella Dawson covers corruption and governance issues for the Thomson Reuters Foundation. For the past 25 years, Dawson has reported on international economic policy and finance at Reuters from the United States and Europe, where she was distinguished for her coverage of the early years of the European Central Bank.