Blog: When it comes to land rights, perception is (almost) everything

In 2015 the UN agreed a new tranche of global sustainable development goals. Among them was a target to increase not only the proportion of adults with legally documented property rights, but also the proportion of adults who perceived their property rights to be secure. Why would they include this metric in a group of global goals?

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Anna Locke, Co-Director, on a key aspect of Prindex

In 2015 the UN agreed a new tranche of global sustainable development goals, signed up to by all member states and due to be achieved by 2030. Among them was a target to increase not only the proportion of adults with legally documented property rights, but also the proportion of adults who perceived their property rights to be secure, whether legally documented or not.

Why would they include this metric in a group of global goals? Isn’t perception by its very nature subjective, vague, anecdotal – far from the world of hard facts we need to make policy and drive change? On the contrary, knowing how people feel about their tenure security is absolutely critical to understanding how they will behave, and therefore to addressing the problems that come with feeling insecure or unsafe.

This is why our new project, Prindex, has perceptions at its heart. By asking representative samples of people in different countries around the world how secure they feel in their homes and on their land we are building a data-based tool that is rigorous, internationally comparable, and demographically representative. It will help policy makers understand how to drive and measure improvements in the security of property and land rights.

A major rationale for the inclusion of land rights as part of the global goal to reduce poverty is that people’s perceptions – their expectations about the future – determine how they behave. If a farmer fears that her land will be seized before the coming harvest, she is less likely to invest in improvements that make her and her community’s land more productive for years to come. The same goes for a craftsman’s workshop in a sprawling metropolis, or a small business struggling in the suburbs.

Furthermore, a legal title is meaningless if government can revoke it at a moment’s notice, if a court system is too choked to allow it to be defended, or if police won’t enforce a court order. Conversely, some informal, traditional systems of property rights can provide enormous security when trust is high. This is true of Tanzania, where Prindex’s 2017 trial study found that the one third of Tanzanians with informal documents reported comparable security to those with formal titles. (Those with no documents at all felt noticeably less secure.) Perceptions are a yardstick by which we can compare different systems globally, and even within countries.

A demographically representative survey of perceptions also means listening to women and younger men – not just the household heads most likely to hold official titles – about the formal and informal barriers to their security. Surveying a representative sample of the population of a country allows government, civil society and business to design solutions for everyone, even those whose views or experience won’t show up in other data. It’s inclusive, respects diversity, and makes for better policy.

Ultimately, measuring perceptions is the best way to rigorously compare countries and regions with sharply differing systems and allow policymakers and researchers to design, target and evaluate interventions to improve security. Measuring perceptions complements the knowledge we have about legal title and different land registration schemes around the world, and gives us an invaluable insight into why land rights matter.

Prindex will meet a need for inclusiveness, comparability and policy relevance, and in doing so advance its mission of empowering the global land rights movement, including partners from government, business and civil society, to improve tenure security around the world.

Our peer-reviewed survey is now live in 15 countries. We will cover 33 countries before the end of the year and around 140 countries by 2020. When we begin to publish data this autumn, it will mark the arrival of the largest, most ambitious attempt ever to understand how secure people worldwide feel in their right to live in the place they call home – and to use that understanding to deliverchange.

Photograph: Farmer land rights protest in Jakarta, Indonesia. Jonathan McIntosh, 2004. Licensed under Creative Commons {{cc-by-2.5}}

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