Land Tenure: What have we learned four years after approving a set of international land tenure guidelines? | Land Portal

By Dr. Gregory Myers, Lead Land Administration Specialist at the World Bank

“Congratulations, today your baby is four years old,” Iris Krebber, DFID/UK recently emailed me. Iris was not referring to a child, but rather the Voluntary Guidelines for the Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forest (VGGT), an agreement I had the challenging pleasure of bringing to life by chairing a UN negotiation process that resulted in the first globally agreed recommendations for addressing land, fisheries, and forests governance. Often colleagues don’t remember my name, but they call me “the land guy,” which I suppose is better than the “dirt guy.”

The call for an international set of guidelines came from many quarters between 2008 and 2010, but was largely driven by concerns raised in international fora by civil society, member states, development partners, and the private sector. These concerns primarily pertained to food security (and specifically food price spikes) and access, and rights to land and other resources by small, medium and large scale producers as they impact investments in food production systems.  

One of the more notable concerns driving the development of the Guidelines was related to large scale land acquisitions (including what some organizations may sometimes refer to as “land grabbing”). Through a technical process FAO developed the initial draft of the Guidelines, and then initiated a process of input and consultation over two years before the document was given to the UN Committee for World Food Security (UN CFS) for negotiation.

As the subject of land rights can be very political (no international guidance can address the plethora of land challenges from Latin America to Africa to Asia and beyond with one-solution fits-all-problems), and civil society organizations, member states, and the private sector often have different views and needs in achieving their respective objectives, you can imagine it was not an easy task for CFS to agree to a set of guidelines.

Indeed, it took nearly two years to negotiate the VGGT, but the end results in 2012 were well worth the hard negotiations. The VGGT is both a technical document (how to address tenure challenges) and a political manifesto that saysthe global community has agreed to a set of standards and policy positions to address land governance for all people, communities, cultures, and importantly, equally for women and men.

At the end of the day, the VGGT says that all legitimate tenure rights shall be recognized and respected. This single issue—the frequent failure to recognize property rights— is at the heart of many development challenges and in most emerging economies. Rough estimates suggest that less than 30% of land rights in emerging economies are recognized and recorded (some estimates in Africa are as high as 90% of land rights are unrecorded). The percentage of women who have recognized rights, let alone rights that are recorded, is significantly less.


Many donors have produced analysis of how the VGGT is being implemented (for examples, see stories from FAO and analysis from USAID). World Bank colleague Linus Pott and I recently witnessed a very interesting FAO-implemented/German-funded VGGT program in Sierra Leone, which has adopted a whole-of-partner approach to address tenure. That project led to the country’s first land policy, and now with World Bank collaboration we will assist in drafting a new land law to support the policy.

A very helpful DFID-funded research paper recently released by PLASS (Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies)—“Strengthening land Governance: Lessons from Implementing the Voluntary Guidelines”— drew important conclusions about the importance of the VGGT, its use thus far, and needed next steps if the VGGT is to be useful to member states and citizens around the world.

From a donor perspective—whether bilateral or multilateral—we undermine our investments and chance to improve people’s lives and, worse potentially, harm people when development practitioners don’t first ask important questions about property rights, and then act on those questions, before or parallel to making investments across many sectors. Consequently, the VGGT could have an important impact beyond just improving property rights.

The UNCFS will host its annual plenary in October, and one session will focus on what land practitioners and policy-makers have accomplished since adoption. Member states, civil society, donors, and the private sector will participate in this forensic discussion, which we hope will lead to greater awareness of the need to address land challenges and how the VGGT has contributed to collective efforts to address food security.

Following the adoption of the VGGT, two additional critical steps were taken by the donor community. First, a number of donors including France, the US, UK, FAO, with help from civil society and others developed operational guidelines for the VGGT to assist states to better understand and implement the guidelines.

Second, to bring greater transparency to what donors are doing in land governance and better promote implementation of the VGGT, the donor community created a Global Donor Working Group on Land (GDWGL). The GDWGL has approximately 30 members and a coordinated work plan to support implementation of the VGGT—all of which is made public via a database and maps of our individual and collective institutional land contributions. The World Bank, a founding member of this group, leads one of 5 priority areas of work: promoting information exchange on best-practices for addressing land tenure, and facilitating increased coordination and cooperation among donors working on land tenure.

This Group, the data and maps, are the first of their kind in the land sector, creating greater efficiency, transparency and shared best lessons so that donors build on their collective efforts rather than compete or undermine each other’s best work. The Group has had success beyond just pursuing the VGGT, as it did this year through a coordinated campaign to ensure that specific indicators for land governance were included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets for Poverty and Gender.

Two important take-aways: first, as we analyze the impacts of the VGGT thus far we realize that many development partners, civil society and governments are starting to adopt VGGT technical guidance and processes; and second, development institutions, states, and civil society still have much to do to internalize the VGGT in their land work and other sectors where land tenure is a challenge and undermines investments in food security, climate change, and fragility. If we do a better job designing programs that either support or are in line with the VGGT, we have a greater chance of achieving these objectives as well as the SDGs.

This blog was originally published as part of the World Bank Sustainable Communities blog series.

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