Opinion: 5 innovations to tackle property rights

Aerial photo of Monwabisi Park in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by: Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading

How do you deal with bureaucratic inefficiencies and weak capacity, to say nothing of endemic impoverishment, corruption, criminal gangs and staggering inequities that undermine property rights worldwide? Is there a way for those in the private and nonprofit sectors to engage with government to fill some of the gaps in the provision of property rights, without making the situation worse? A way to get involved without further complicating matters?

Those of us in the property rights community get asked these questions frequently and for good reason.

The broad preponderance of material and research around property rights, the formal recognition and protection of the right to use and have property, speaks mainly to the complexity and difficulty of the issue. We are very good at pointing out what’s not working — the broken systems and legislation that are failing to systematically address issues such as why people fight over land, why indigenous and customary rights are not respected, why and how a lack of property rights drives deforestation, and why it is so convoluted and expensive to try and get legal documentation for one’s property. And when we do come to the table with potential answers to those questions, solutions are too often obscured by arcane language laced with technical and legal jargon. Add to this citizens’ perceptions of the overwhelming time and cost — and sometimes fear — of engaging public institutions charged with providing this most fundamental of public services, and you have very short lines at government offices.

Many misinterpret these realities as a lack of demand for property rights. To me, it’s a sign that people have lost hope, or have made a rational economic choice — that it is more time and cost effective for them to remain outside of the formal system with hope they never suffer from it.

Against this backdrop, one truth remains: It’s estimated that more than 1 billion people lack secure property rights around the world, putting them at risk of wrongful eviction and forced displacement. Because of this, there has never been a more urgent need for success stories in property rights.

The good news is that there are tangible examples of government agencies — and in some cases the private sector — working together to implement groundbreaking innovations in property rights administration by centering solutions on providing convenient, cost effective and, dare we say, pleasant service delivery to constituents. These tangible examples are part of a new series of case studies developed by researchers at Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies program after studying a variety of government projects, programs and partnerships from around the world.

Here are five of the most promising innovations in property rights administration — real-world solutions that can inspire and empower the many property rights advocates working in government and beyond.

“The problem is a big one, and it needs attention and funding, but changing the way people have been doing things for decades or even centuries can be extremely difficult. However, when we consider that more than 1 billion people live without secure property rights, it’s worth the struggle.”    

1. A flagship project

In the rural west coast community of Ebenhaeser, South Africa, the government helped restore the property rights of citizens who had been deprived of their communal land under apartheid. Provincial officials and private consultants leveraged an existing legal framework to transfer land held in trust by the government to Ebenhaeser community members, and developed a land administration plan that would pave the way for residents to become the legal owners of their communal territory.

2. A public-private partnership

In Ontario, Canada, the provincial government and joint venture company Teranet worked together to digitize 4 million property records across 50 registry offices, leading to the world’s first electronic land registration system. The massive computerization was made possible by a few key stakeholder alliances that helped prevent fraudulent transactions and maintain enduring efforts across decades.

3. A newly merged, national government agency

In Jamaica, the government combined four departments into one, the National Land Agency, to combat weak coordination, corruption and delay in administering property rights in a country where thousands of communities lived without formal recognition. Not without its challenges, the new agency continues its efforts to streamline land administration, digitize records and improve performance.

4. A new rule of law

A pilot project in Cape Town, South Africa, ushered the rule of law into the urban slum of Monwabisi Park, and helped unlock access to basic needs such as health care and education for residents. Through an incremental tenure approach, the city issued occupancy certificates that recognized residents’ rights to remain on the land, that protected against arbitrary eviction, and that laid the groundwork for eventual access to the services enjoyed by city residents living in legal housing.

5. A state-owned commercial authority

Recognizing the need for costly upgrades to its IT systems, Western Australia’s Department of Lands administration developed a structure to make itself self-financing, enabling it to invest in new systems using the fees it collected. The new authority, Landgate, created a groundbreaking automated registration system, improved customer service, and expanded its revenue base by leveraging its proprietary land information.

Many of the case studies’ prescriptive actions, taken alone, may appear mundane or obvious: Administrative performance monitoring, technology upgrades, community engagement. But together they provide integrated and prioritized action plans to help combat one of society’s most intractable and important set of challenges.

Most importantly, the case studies present a welcome vantage point in the global property rights discussion. While acknowledging setbacks and barriers, they show us a realistic but doable path ahead in challenging environments. Each study demonstrates stakeholders innovatively tackling one by one the priority factors, missing elements, or essential changes necessary to achieve relative success in providing secure property rights. The case studies provide a compelling view of what can work in some of the toughest political-social contexts.

We know that the numbers are huge, with many estimating that at least 50 percent of the world’s population suffers from weak or non-existent property rights. The problem is a big one, it needs attention and funding, but changing the way people have been doing things for decades or even centuries can be extremely difficult. However, when we consider that more than 1 billion people live without secure property rights, it’s worth the struggle.    

Join us on May 31 at “Driving Change, Securing Tenure: Innovations in Land & Property Rights” in Washington, D.C. as we discuss further innovations around the world and ask how we can work together to bring to bear solutions and resources to the issue of property rights. To register, click here, and join the conversation on social media using #ISSCases.

About the author

  • Peter rabley

    Peter Rabley

    Peter Rabley is venture partner at Omidyar Network, where he invests in property rights in emerging markets. He has more than 25 years of experience in the international property rights space as an entrepreneur, business leader and technologist.