A man on Entoto mountain in Ethiopia. International investors and foreign aid groups should change their approach to land acquisitions and administration in Africa, says the World Bank's Frank Byamugisha. Photo by: Arne Hoel / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

It’s time for the international community to rethink its approach to improving land administration, a World Bank analyst tells Devex in an exclusive interview. Past efforts have largely failed and current ones aren’t delivering results fast enough.

In a candid interview with Devex, Frank Byamugisha, the bank’s lead land specialist for Africa, called for an accelerated push of land governance reform that takes advantage of improved agriculture market conditions and new-found political will and guards against damaging, speculative land-grabs from hedge funds and foreign investors that do little to aide local communities and smallholder farmers.

International resources should be used to ramp up local efforts, based on input from Africa’s own experts and services from Africa’s own businesses, Byamugisha suggested.

Limited role for foreign technical assistance?

Land governance issues have been getting more attention from international development leaders lately. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the world’s largest bilateral donor, is more engaged now than it has been in years, for instance. As donors ramp up their work in this area, questions arise about who will receive those resources  African businesses or foreign technical service providers.

According to Byamugisha, the role of foreigners should be limited since land tenure and property rights issues are deeply rooted in local cultural and political norms that can be difficult for outsiders to understand and tackle.

“With this kind of program, implementation would require local [assistance] that understands the local situation [and] that can work very closely with African leadership, so that in the end of it, Africans can feel that if the program fails, they have themselves to blame, and if it succeeds, then they can enjoy the glory.”

Many internationally driven efforts to spur land administration reform and boost agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa have suffered due to their reliance on foreign implementers engaged only for a limited time, typically backed by short-term donor contracts that aren’t well-positioned to affect lasting institutional change, Byamugisha said.

Non-African technical assistance, he noted, should focus mostly on ensuring local services meet global standards, reflect best practices and benefit from access to technology, while African institutions should provide the bulk of land-related services, like computerizing land registry data and improved surveying techniques.

Byamugisha provides 10 suggestions on how to improve land governance in a newly released World Bank report entitled ”Securing Africa’s Land for Shared Prosperity: A Program to Scale-up Reforms and Investment.

Right environment for progress

International attention to land tenure and property rights has waxed and waned in the last half century, generally reemerging after periods of conflict or political transition, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But some analysts feel political and economic conditions in sub-Saharan Africa are prime now for large-scale progress on promoting better land governance across the region.

Rising commodity prices have generated interest in African agricultural productivity. Foreign investment, accompanied by new technologies and expertise, has raised land values. Those conditions, Byamugisha said, pave the way for policy reforms targeting improved land governance to yield higher returns in agricultural productivity and inclusive economic growth than in the past.

Agricultural investors who feel more secure about long-term growth are more likely to seek productive relationships with local landowners, farmers and resource users. That commitment to a longer-term presence can help ensure land and resource users are consulted and fairly compensated prior to land acquisition.

Byamugisha said he hopes land governance initiatives will even go a step further, by giving smallholders and civil society organizations a seat at the planning table, to create more market space for participation in large-scale agriculture plans as outgrowers and contract farmers for big agricultural businesses.

The same optimism, coupled with positive economic forecasts, seems to be pushing African political leaders and regional organizations to attend to controversial land reform issues they might have avoided in the past when the political environment for agricultural planning was less stable, he explained.

Smallholders pay the price for weak institutions

Not everyone agrees with the World Bank’s investment-friendly outlook. Many anti-poverty advocates argue that there are hidden costs associated with land purchases by large corporations, speculators or governments like those of China and Saudi Arabia.

Last year, for instance, Oxfam called for the World Bank to freeze all of its investments associated with large-scale land acquisition. And just last week, Christian Aid suggested that foreign investors purchasing and developing land in Sierra Leone have routinely failed to pay for the indirect costs imposed by those investments, like water exhaustion and pollution.

Instead, Christian Aid said, these costs are often passed onto the local population and farmers, who depend most on reliable ecosystems and thus suffer most from environmental damage incurred through irresponsible land-use and development. In a report released July 26, the NGO identifies shortfalls in the impact assessment process that downplays the long-term implications of investments and land-use changes brought about to intensify agricultural production.

That finding is not surprising, according to Byamugisha, given Sierra Leone’s generally weak land governance institutions, which fail to ensure large land acquisitions respect local land rights and benefit local communities. Writing off all large-scale land acquisition as inherently bad for Africa’s farmers, he said, oversimplifies an investment landscape composed of diverse actors, and risks missing out on a potential opportunity for positive change.

The debate points to a major conundrum, though: Less developed countries with high rates of poverty, which tend to be among the most in need of improved land governance, are also the most likely to agree to quick land purchases for easy profits. So for governments to change their approach to land administration, incentives may have to change too.

The reform needs and readiness of countries in sub-Saharan Africa differs vastly. Those further along on the reform process, like Rwanda, are more likely to benefit from an accelerated movement to promote and invest in reform efforts. Others, such as South Sudan, require more work to ensure land administration reforms can succeed.

Land speculation versus long-term planning

Large-scale agricultural development does not always harm smallholders. But many investors that are buying up large tracts of land are not investing in Africa’s long-term agricultural development, nor are their land grabs informed by a sound understanding of what it takes to farm successfully on the continent.

Some of the most disruptive acquisitions, Byamugisha said, involve speculative investors and hedge funds which either buy land and then leave it untilled, or purchase far greater tracts than what is required for productive farming, pushing former resource users off the land while producing little benefit for surrounding communities.

Land buyers enticed by biofuel subsidies in the United States and Europe represent another bloc of speculative newcomers that would be weeded out if better land administration practices were enforced across the region, Byamugisha suggested. Firms with a sincere interest in utilizing land for all-around gains would benefit.

“To be able to sustain those investments, it will be futile operating without local support,” Byamugisha said. “The World Bank believes you have to get those companies, work with them, and then help to grow lessons that can be used as examples to other companies that have been taking different approaches, which have given a bad name to [foreign direct investment] in agriculture.”

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.