Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Property Rights for the Rural Poor: The Challenge of Landlessness

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Property Rights for the Rural Poor: The Challenge of Landlessness

Article excerpt

The debate around the relative roles of markets versus bureaucrats took on renewed life with the end of the Cold War. The public policy debate shifted from focusing on the public sector to emphasizing markets and their ability to innovate, decentralize, use incentives and meet needs more effectively. Yet there remains in this public policy debate a stunning silence about the absence of property rights for the rural poor. This article focuses on the need to put property rights for the rural poor--the need for land reform--back on the international policy agenda. The first half of the article examines current land reform paradigms and looks at what has been learned, focusing on Brazil as a case study The second half of the article moves from what has been done to a discussion of where future research and operational work should go from here.

There are 1.3 billion people around the world who live on less than U.S.$1 a day.(1) Even though urbanization has been one of the major features of development and change in the past decade, the majority of these poor still live in rural areas. Furthermore, there are rural roots to the urban poverty seen in most countries, as those without assets migrate to urban or semi-urban areas searching for work. Thus redistribution of assets is central to long-run progress on reducing poverty in both the city and the countryside. Researchers Michael Lipton and Jacques van der Gaag point out:

   For poverty reduction to succeed, the poor need some autochthonous source
   of income and safety. That is, they need to have an alternative, in the
   market place and in the polity, not to depend on a patron, monopolist or
   bureaucrat. Providing the poor with access to productive land is usually
   regarded as crucial.(2)

Land reform is one of the most central steps in this process. The effectiveness of land-reform programs in improving productivity and reducing rural poverty relies on many factors including land quality, access to technology and strong local agricultural markets. However, access to land is the single most important prerequisite for improving economic conditions among the rural poor.

Precisely because of the salience of land reform to the reduction of rural poverty, one of the major recommendations of this paper is that international donors should recommit themselves to land reform and begin financing the analytical work and technical assistance it requires. The current general silence and limited operational programming of donors on land reform exacerbates the rural poverty problem.(3)


Over two decades ago, Peter Dorner, a major authority on land reform, cautioned:

   Land reform is so intimately related with the whole development process
   that one feels the need to deal with issues of development in general as
   well as with those more specifically identified with land reform. That
   requires simplification of complex and nationally specific experiences. No
   single body of theory encompasses all the strategic variables.(4)

Dorner's definition of land reform includes measures to redistribute land in favor of peasants and small farmers and "... embraces consolidation and registration in areas where customary tenure is prevalent and also land settlement on new lands."(5) He places an additional emphasis on the need to make changes in tenancy rights.

Each of these aspects goes to the core of rural politics, and nothing about them is easily simplified. Indeed, to think of land reform as only a technocratic or economic problem is a mistake. It is a political economy problem with economic and social consequences amenable to resolution through good technical skills and political change. As such, land reform is a central part of the whole development process.

While development economists and agricultural economists have done most of the conceptual work on land reform, more recently attention has shifted to the ancillary fields of institutional theory (including organization theory), development management and law. …

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