European Report on Development 2012 – Celebrating the Voluntary Guidelines on Governance of Land and recognizing the need to move beyond

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      Coming Wednesday, on the 16th of May, the new European Report on Development 2011-2012, authored by ODI, DIIE and ECDPM, will be launched. This report looks at increasing scarcity and how it is likely to affect the prospects of furthering inclusive and sustainable development. Increasing scarcity of land and water has already led to large changes in ownership and usage of these natural resources, and emerging evidence is clearly pointing to negative outcomes for the poor. In addition, the changes in land use patterns in developing countries are not contributing to a transition to a more environmentally sustainable resource use. The recent steep increases in domestic and international land acquisitions by private companies have rightfully raised concerns. However, rather than vilifying the investors, the key lies in strengthened regulative institutions combined with strengthening the opposing forces, in which risks can be mitigated better, and opportunities seized.

      The launch of the European Report on Development, which has a specific chapter analyzing the consequences of the  increasing pressures on land, comes a few days after the presentation of a new set of Voluntary Guidelines on governance of land – the full title is Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security - to the United Nations’ Committee of Food Security for final approval. The guidelines were formulated in an extensive, broad-based consultative process, with involvement of about 96 member countries along with civil society organizations, UN agencies and other international organizations, farmers associations, and private sector representatives. Thus the result is a broadly accepted international benchmark for policy making with regard to natural resource management and food security.

      Good but not sufficient

      The key points of the Guidelines correspond closely with the recommendations from the European Report on Development when it comes to land. The Guidelines are explicit about the right to human dignity, principles of equity, justice and non-discrimination, the right to consultation and participation and free prior informed consent. It stresses the importance of transparency, accountability and right to information, and – in sum – provides a benchmark for ‘good governance’. Secondly, they recognize explicitly the legitimacy of informal and customary and collective tenure rights, and stresses in particular the rights of women and smallholders. Thirdly, they address – to some degree – natural resources in a holistic and integrated way and incorporates cultural, social and environmental values of land alongside its economic value. This is also what the European Report on Development does by pointing to the fact that we need to start taking these linkages between these issues into account and regard land as more than simply an input into a production system.

      The Guidelines also have weaknesses, and these relate in particular to the relatively strong powers assigned to the state as ultimate decision-maker in all issues related to land use and allocation. The language around the ‘consideration of legitimate tenure rights holders’ is vague at times, and they often seem to remain subject to existing national laws. Considering the fact that it mostly the state that is responsible for leasing the land to private investors, one may doubt to what degree this policy framework will actually serve as meaningful protection to the informal tenure holders (which, in sub-Saharan Africa, happen to be the vast majority of land users).

      The guidelines are not compulsory, and making them binding may not be politically feasible. Yet, policy guidelines such as these can serve a number of important purposes. Most importantly, they can provide a benchmark that can be used by policy makers, civil society, private sector actors and donors. There now is a bar that civil society can hold other actors accountable to, and a set of rights they can use as the basis of further empowerment of the poor.

      However, there is not really a shortage of good policy frameworks that can serve as a bar. For example, the EU guidelines on land policy are also solid and have been around since 2004, but so far have not managed to prevent the negative consequences of increased private sector investment in land in predominantly sub-Saharan Africa. The question then takes a different shape: what are the complementary capacities necessary to turn a policy framework into action? A broad consensus, as the Voluntary Guidelines have managed to achieve, is a good starting point - but it is not sufficient.

      Making regulations work

      Firstly, it is time to redress the imbalance between the past strong support to the business environment and weak support to land governance.  In developing countries, the institutional capacities to formulate policy frameworks on land use, devise country systems for implementation, monitoring and enforcement are insufficient. Land tenure systems are weak and top-heavy. Strengthening these institutional capacities will require substantive input. They will need to look beyond land itself, and need to bring management of water resources on board, as these are closely interlinked. Secondly, strong state capacities alone will not protect the poor from the strong economic forces currently at play, especially if the playing field is not level and governments themselves are a major player. Opposing forces are necessary. Maintaining the pressure on governments and companies for greater openness is essential, and needs to be coupled with an enhanced capacity and rights of citizens to scrutinize government policy. Thirdly, the relatively weak competitive position of local farmers also needs attention from policy makers. The long history of underinvestment in agricultural research and extension needs to be compensated for. A strong role for public sector investment in research and extension remains essential, and needs to be geared towards increasing the productivity of small holders and identifying new ways need to be found that marry productivity increases with more sustainable production methods, increased domestic food security and household resilience. Private sector can also play a role here, if more care is being taken that it contributes to more sustainable production methods, that transfer of technology does take place, and that spin-off services can spring up around the investment.

      The EU, which declared the promotion of sustainable and inclusive growth as a priority area of its development cooperation, can and should focus its attention and focus on this kind of issues. The Voluntary Guidelines are an important step, but are a point of departure and not a destination. The European Report on Development provides practical insight into what the EU can do to support developing countries seize the opportunities while mitigating the risk, especially to the poor.


      Frauke de Weijer is Policy Officer Policy Officer Conflict, Security and Resilience at ECDPM.

      This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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