Promoting equity through improved urban state land governance

by Shaun Williams

Shaun Williams is Land and Natural Resources Governance Adviser to the Justice for the Poor program of the World Bank.

In many emergent states, where significant proportions of property in de-colonized national territory is still held customarily, reform questions around immovable property and development often tend to be focused on rights issues within customary estates. However in these newer nations, state-owned land commonly includes the most economically valuable land, including significant areas of urban land, on which development pressure is high. This land was commonly first expropriated out of customary estates by colonial powers and then subsequently acquired by post independence states as part of a liberation ‘dividend’.

Most departing imperial powers evaded responsibility for restitution of colonial era dispossessions, as subsequently have post independent states, thereby protracting a significant source of much civil discontent.  Many new states have also been unable to overhaul the arcane land administration institutions they inherited, which were designed to service the land needs of long gone, colonial era, church and trading elites, thereby frustrating the configuration of the new elite coalitions of local entrepreneurs needed to accommodate the rapid urbanization they are all experiencing (UN-HABITAT has estimated that 30% of all Solomon Islanders and almost 40% of Vanuatu’ and Timor-Leste’ populations will be living in cities by 2030). As the legitimization, adjudication and enforcement of property rights is a core function of nation states, these failures in turn undermine wider state building projects.

More important perhaps, throughout the developing world poor governance of state land negatively impacts the poor materially. Mismanagement of state land results in loss of significant amounts of economic rent (because of the high value of state land) that could otherwise be spent on the public services or invested in the infrastructure upon which the poor depend. These foregone rents are frequently being captured by the patrons of sometimes corrupt administrators operating within highly discretionary and otherwise dysfunctional regulatory frameworks.

Indifferent management of state land clogs up land markets, notably urban immovable property markets where demand is high and supply is tight.  Poorly managed disposal of state property is equally unlikely to produce better outcomes. Warehousing by speculators of leases and concessions of state owned land, frequently acquired through opaque and uncompetitive allocations, further restricts supply, particularly of urban land, thereby inflating urban land prices and directly contributing to the unaffordability of city housing for both the poor families and low- to middle-income earners.

Recent evidence from Solomon Islands suggests that a reform focus on the governance of state land holdings, even if relatively small in area, can yield outsized benefits. In Solomon Islands, as much as 10 percent of GDP may be affected by how effectively urban state (referred to in the relevant Solomon Islands legislation as ‘public’) land is governed and the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor program, UN-HABITAT, and other partners are working to catalyze interagency coordination to move towards improve urban state land governance.

For more information please see the Justice for the Poor program Briefing Note Public Land Governance in Solomon Islands or the Justice for the Poor website.

6 responses to “Promoting equity through improved urban state land governance

  1. Many thanks to Shaun for a very engaging posting – the issue of ‘state’ or ‘public’ land in post-colonial countries is a crucial one that has not really been given its due on TN – however, I did touch on it at the end of an earlier posting on South Sudan:
    I also hope to give the issue more attention in future postings.

  2. This is the right way to frame these issues: in terms of a post colonial legacy whereby a set of institutional arrangements designed to enable one set of governing and elite interests is passed onto another incoming government and elite with different (and not clearly idenitified) needs and interests, the latter not at all necessarily set up to enable optimal development of land markets, allocation of rents and powers, or social outcomes such as housing. How these allocations become sources of conflict- and how fixing them needs a particular kind of concerted institutional attention- is something for further consideration.

  3. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – particularly in the sense in which you refer to these issues not only as ‘institutional arrangements’ but also as ‘allocations’. A core problem seems to me to be the fact that such ‘state land’ legacies involve the perpetuation of a transfer of land rights away from actual land users that they may not even be fully aware of but which places them in a situation of radical tenure insecurity. However, even if such acts were undertaken illegitimately at the time (e.g. by an unrepresentative colonial power), their perpetuation by post-colonial regimes provides them with a sort of prima facie legitimacy. And given the mixed record of post-colonial elites on representativeness, rule of law and democracy, you potentially have a recipe for disaster dressed in a veneer of legality. A bit more on this in a shortly to come (I hope) posting.

  4. Pingback: Someday, this will not be yours: the predatory state eyes ‘public’ land | TerraNullius

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