Zombie statistic? “The tenure of 70% of the global population is insecure.” [Part 1 of 2] | Land Portal

“Two-thirds of the world’s population have no access to secure land tenure.” Variations of this statistic are commonly cited in the land sector. But where does that data come from? How do we know? The number has been used so often as to become detached from any source. The Land Portal believes in the power of open data and information as a starting point for inquiry, scrutiny, and improvement. We began a conversation among the Land Portal research and communications teams to get to the bottom of this question and asked researcher Rick de Satgé to explore it further. Read part 2 of this blog series here

Zombie statistic? “The tenure of 70% of the global population is insecure.” 

By Rick de Satgé

It is commonly stated that just 30% of the global population have legally registered rights to their land and homes, while the property rights of 70% remain undocumented.  From these numbers it is often inferred that the land rights of the undocumented majority must be insecure – which as we will argue is a questionable assumption.

In Part One of this two-part blog series, we try to uncover the origin of the estimated 70-30% split between undocumented and documented land rights and explore some of the different ways in which these figures have been used and interpreted. In this we also draw attention to how land rights and property rights in land are often confused. 

Firstly, we need to try and establish to whom and what these numbers refer? Sifting through the literature one encounters a welter of figures used to describe tenure (in)security. Even the 70/30 split is used to describe very different things. In some accounts the 70% denotes the undocumented land rights of the global population – both urban and rural. In others, the figures refer to the population of ‘developing countries’.  However, this too is not very precise as the definition of a ‘developing country’ was never agreed on. The World Bank dropped the distinction between developed and developing countries in 2016 to replace it with different income categories. Despite being widely regarded as unhelpful, the term continues to be used by several global institutions. Thirty one of the 169 SDG targets make specific reference to developing countries, despite the UN having no formal definition of how to determine this status.

In some instances, the numbers describe the extent of the land for which there is no official tenure protection. IUCN states that insecurity of tenure contributes to climate change vulnerability, affecting significant land resources in Latin America, Asia and the South Pacific and as much as 90% of land in Africa.

However, as we will examine, tenure insecurity is context specific and attempts to generalise inevitably run into problems. As Payne and Durand-Lasserve so clearly stated back in 2012:

Assessing the nature and scale of the problem is fraught with difficulties of definition as well as measurement. All attempts to estimate the number of people globally who suffer from insecure land tenure and restricted property rights have proved unsuccessful. This is because tenure security is partly a matter of perception and experience as much as a legal issue.

The 70% figure, whether of the world’s population, land without protective tenure, or land in developing countries has since been critiqued as a ‘zombie statistic’.

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While the 70/30 estimate has been much quoted, it seems there is no recognised data source or study for these figures. This is because the figure is reported to derive from an “educated guess” based on the experience of ten land tenure experts. Apparently, the estimate was generated as part of the advice given to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in the preparation for the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGT) which were finally endorsed a decade ago in May 2012.  . 

But the 70/30 estimate was not pure speculation. It did have some basis in research. For example, a study concluded in 1998 that there was no documentary evidence of title for up to 90% of land parcels in ‘developing countries’. This study also noted that less than 1% of sub-Saharan Africa was covered by any kind of cadastral survey. From this it was concluded that “at a rough estimate 70% of developing country populations fall outside any formal land administration system."

However, the way that the estimated 70% of people whose rights are not formally documented came to be identified as people whose land rights were necessarily insecure forms part of a bigger and much contested story.  While the figure of 70% of the world’s population has been critiqued, it remains entrenched as a narrative ‘truth’. 

On the one hand this ‘truth’ has been successfully used to raise awareness about global land issues.  On the other it can also be said to have contributed to persistent simplifications about the nature of tenure insecurity and the design of solutions to address this which we explore in Part Two.


Alcorn, J. (2014). Strengthen tenure security. Conflict sensitive adaptation: Use human rights to build social and environmental resilience. Brief 3, Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee and IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy.

Beger, G. (2017). "Land Rights: Disadvantaged traditional occupants."   Retrieved 6 June, 2022, from https://www.dandc.eu/en/article/secure-land-rights-are-key-factor-sustainable-rural-development.

Daly, J. (2018). "Measuring Global Perceptions of Land and Property Rights." Gallup blog  Retrieved 6 June, 2022, from https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/245483/measuring-global-perceptions-land-property-rights.aspx#:~:text=This%20is%20why%20secure%20land%20and%20property%20rights,world%27s%207%20billion%20citizens%20think%20these%20rights%20are.

Du Plessis, j., C. Augustinus, M. Barry, C. Lemmen and L. Royston (2016). The continuum of land rights approach to tenure security: Consolidating advances in theory and practice. Scaling up responsible land governance. Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty. 14-18 March. Washington DC, UN Habitat/GLTN.

Fernhollz, T. (2016). "The World Bank is eliminating the term “developing country” from its data vocabulary."   Retrieved 31 May, 2022, from https://qz.com/685626/the-world-bank-is-eliminating-the-term-developing-country-from-its-data-vocabulary/.

Fourie, C. (1998  ). An Integrated Geo-Information (GIS) with Emphasis on Cadastre and Land Information Systems (LIS) for Decision-Makers in Africa. Working document for meeting of group of experts at United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Addis Ababa, 23-26 November Unpublished.

Hirsch, P. and N. Scurrah (2020). Land rights recognition/formalization/titling/collective tenure, Mekong Land Research Forum.

Khokar, T. (2015). "Is the term ‘developing world’ outdated?"  https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/is-the-term-developing-world-outdated/.

LaForge, G. (2021). Land Rights for the Untitled Poor: Testing A Business Model, 2012–2021. Innovations for successful societies, Princeton University.

Payne, G. and A. Durand-Lasserve (2012). Holding on: Security of tenure: Types, policies, practices and challenges. Expert group meeting on security of tenure 22-23 October 2012, UN Human Rights Office.

The World Bank. (2017). "Why Secure Land Rights Matter."   Retrieved 30 May, 2022, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2017/03/24/why-secure-land-rights-matter.

USAID. (2022). "Securing Land Tenure and Property Rights for Stability and Prosperity."   Retrieved 6 June, 2022, from https://www.usaid.gov/land-tenure.

Photo by Ignacio Ferre Pérez on Flickr.

Read Part 2 of this two-part blog series on tenure (in)security here.