A modest proposal for the post-election development agenda

an alaskan landscape

With election day past, President-elect Joe Biden and his transition team must now size up a host of pressing challenges, chief among them how to respond to the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, right-size a foundering global economy, and address the existential threat of climate change.

And while much ink will be spilled weighing these critical issues, one item on the international development agenda should not be overlooked: securing the land and property rights of more people in more parts of the world.

It is important to understand how land and property rights are tied to issues that generate more interest and attention.  When people and communities do not have secure rights to the land and resources they depend on, they are less likely to invest in irrigation systems, trees, or soil conservation. Agricultural productivity and food security can suffer, and economic growth can lag. 

When these rights aren’t secure, communities can be locked out of decision making and opportunities to benefit from land and resources. In some countries, insecure rights contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss. In other cases, unsettled disputes from the past create volatile grievances today. This is the case in parts of Kenya, across the Sahel, and in parts of India and the Philippines. The failure to address historic injustices related to land threatens peace and security, destabilizing communities and contributing to regional conflict.

And when these rights are not secure, some groups face special hurdles to equal treatment and market participation. Women, youth, and minority groups are often considered second-class citizens when it comes to land and property rights. If they cannot access land or use it to build a better life, then fewer creative minds and fewer hands are at work, sparking innovation, producing needed goods, and creating the conditions for a more prosperous future.  

So, what can be done over the next four years to address these problems?

First, the administration can work with partner governments, local people, and the private sector to map, record, and recognize traditional and indigenous communities’ land rights. 

The opportunity is enormous.  According to the World Bank, Indigenous Peoples own, occupy, or use as much as one-quarter of the world’s land, and manage and protect as much as 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity.  While some communities have made headway gaining legal recognition of their rights to land, many others face daunting political, legal and social hurdles to formalize land claims. 

Programs that focus on securing these vast and important lands could pay important dividends in three ways. Lands managed by indigenous communities are degrading less rapidly than are other lands. Couple this with the recognition that deforestation rates are often lower on lands managed by traditional and indigenous communities, and you have a powerful strategy to address a host of climate-related problems.  

This work could also reduce risks for U.S. companies that invest, operate, or source products where indigenous and traditional communities have land claims. Overlapping, unclear claims and weak investment processes, create a near-perfect environmental, social and governance storm for companies, along with very real financial and reputational costs

The administration has another important opportunity to work with partner governments, traditional leaders and agri-businesses to enable more youth to access and use agricultural lands securely. Today, most young people in Africa (60 percent of Africa’s population of 1.2 billion people are under the age of 25) acquire land rights by inheriting it. As parents and other elders live longer, youth are facing long delays acquiring land rights.  

At the same time, Africa’s farmers are rapidly aging and aging farmers are less likely to use new technologies to access information to improve outputs and connect to markets. Youth are more likely to be tech-savvy, but they have a harder time building a successful career in farming without secure access to land. Agricultural and food security programs that support more youth to lease land to farm on their own or collectively or purchase land could improve agricultural productivity, create rural economic opportunities and address problems associated with youth migration.  

Finally, the administration can help more women step out of second-class citizen status by continuing to emphasize the importance of women’s land and property rights, an issue that was specifically highlighted for attention in the bi-partisan Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment (WEEE) Act.  

The need is real. Millions of women face legal and social barriers when controlling and owning land; 40 percent of economies still limit women’s property rights. Working with partner governments, local leaders, and the private sector, the administration can continue to prioritize women’s economic empowerment and support women’s equal treatment under the law. 

Programs that identify and close gaps in national legal frameworks, enable more women to register land claims and support more women to register land claims or access land through markets can help improve women’s voice and agency and improve their children’s nutrition and lead to more spending on children’s education and health care. The programs can help more women become successful farmers in their own right and alongside partners — and this can help U.S. businesses create more inclusive and sustainable agricultural value chains and enhance brand reputation. 

As we look ahead, bringing a “land lens” to U.S. development assistance could be an efficient way to promote women’s economic empowerment, stronger agricultural sectors and a healthier environment. Securing land and property rights for more of the world’s women and men should be an issue everyone — republican, democrat or independent — can get behind. 

Karol Boudreaux is a lawyer and land tenure and resource rights expert, with a strong focus on women’s land rights, responsible land-based investments, and peace and security. She is the Chief Program Officer for Landesa, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to creating economic opportunity and security for women and men through the power of land rights. Landesa is an implementing partner with USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, both of which oversee billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid.

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