For land rights and tenure, no data revolution in sight

February 25, 2014

By Lorenz Noe: Advocacy Strategic Initiatives Intern, Habitat for Humanity International 

We are living in an era of unprecedented data collection and analysis. Every day features new examples of technology, mainly mobile in nature, being used to collect data and analyze patterns in order to judge the effect of policies or to simply observe human behavior on a micro and macro scale. Because the vast majority of data which urban planners, government officials and the public are interested in deals with people, and because much of modern data collection utilizes technology, cities are becoming natural data hubs. Data is being collected, both intentionally and through metadata, by the government, civil society organizations, and the private sector to log claims of corruption[1], improve transportation systems[2]and increase access to finance[3], health[4]and education[5]. However, data surrounding property rights and tenure, particularly among the poor, has yet to be captured on the scale needed to create a comprehensive picture of tenure around the world. This lack of data cripples any effort to design effective policy solutions to issues such as affordable housing, provision of basic services, city planning and growth.

This failure has two causes, both informing one another.

  • Lack of institutional and regulatory capacity to capture that data
  • Lack of political will to capture data

First, the lack of property rights and the lack of data are two sides of the same coin of lack of institutional capacity. Many municipal governments worldwide do not have dedicated statistics offices, much less qualified and trained staff to collect the data in the first place. The lack of data also reflects a lack of vision and implementation of comprehensive property rights and tenure programs. Governance is very weak in many of the cities that stand to grow the most over the next decades, such as in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  Designing an effective and fair land rights program is among the most difficult tasks assigned to these government, due to its highly politicized nature and need for effective bureaucracy. To fill this void, technical assistance programs from bilateral and multilateral donors, but also involving local civil society organizations through consultative processes, can go a long way towards establishing the necessary procedures and hiring practices to address these capacity issues.

Second, the lack of data about property rights and tenure is due to unwillingness to collect it, for fear of legitimizing particular communities such as slums. Central districts, where the poor have lived for generations, generally appreciate in land value as a city grows and the lack of property rights enable governments and private entities to displace neighborhoods in order to make way for land development. The poor often cannot benefit from these redevelopments, despite claims to allocate portions of redeveloped land for affordable housing. Due to operational and legal constraints to work in “illegal” settlements, there is little that foreign donors and multilateral institutions can do in these situations, but local governments must realize that policies which continue to disenfranchise the poor from a functioning legal system will only continue to overburden the existing city services. As William Cobbet, Manager of Cities Alliance mentioned in a Keynote Address to the World Planning School Congress in 2011,

“We have seen this debate many times when the mayor says that he or she has a problem of slums, and needs to deal with the slums. Our response is, if you have 30, 40 or 60 per cent of your city is slums, you do not have a slum problem; you need to rethink your entire city and how it is governed. You need to rethink its revenues, its expenditure and your administration.”[6]

It is therefore in the interest of local governments worldwide to take a further step in both broadening and then opening their data collection efforts, once capacity has been obtained. The data revolution will only continue to steamroll across academia, economics and technology. Excluding tenure from being counted among critical city indicators represents a failure of governments to fulfill one of their most basic roles as a protector of property rights. Furthermore, governments stand to gain from increased information through the ability to tax more effectively and allocate services according to need of neighborhoods instead of vested interests and political pressure. For example, easy registration of properties in Bolivia and Peru increased the number of entrepreneurs, thus boosting the economic productivity of the area.[7]

Technological entrepreneurs, NGOs, and the donor community can do their part to improve capacity and lead the way on collecting data. However, it will take the support and legalization of properties by local governments for the vast amounts of property data to become operational and useful for all involved.


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