Six lessons from the premier global forum on land governance


Participation, capacity building and multi-stakeholder processes: those were some of the key themes of the 18th annual Land and Poverty Conference hosted by the World Bank at their headquarters in Washington DC. The theme of this year’s event – which has come to be known as the premier global forum on land governance – was “Responsible Land Governance – Towards an Evidence-Based Approach”. Lucy Oates, who attended on behalf of LANDac, reflects on some of the key themes.


A few numbers reveal the true magnitude of an impressive programme: the event accommodated 1222 participants, from 127 countries, and featured 600 papers which were presented in 156 parallel sessions. Enormous and overwhelming – sure. An incredible learning and agenda-setting opportunity, an incomparable chance to meet the land sector’s leading minds from all corners of the globe, and the event of the year in the field of land governance – absolutely.

From familiar themes…

Though new to the World Bank Conference, I am not (entirely) new to the land debate – I recognised some established messages which were stressed repeatedly in key note speeches, presentations and general discussion alike. The fact that these messages are already well-recognised does not devalue their being at the Conference – on the contrary, they have long been and still remain resonant.

  1. First, was the call to design and use authentically participatory methods to assess and improve land governance. Opinions on exactly what constitutes authentic participation varied, but criteria included ensuring that willingness to contribute grew from the grassroots level (rather than being forced from the top down) and recognising the constructive potential that arises from conflict resolution – rather than dismissing conflict as only detrimental. A wonderful example of how successful such methods can be came in a session about helping communities document their rights, where Felix Braeckman of VNG International and Myat Thu Aung of Tetra Tech each presented on their own experiences with participatory mapping. In both cases – though in Benin and Myanmar respectively – including villagers in the process of drawing out their borders meant an inclusive, cost-effective and ultimately conflict-free way to document land plots.
  2. Secondly, and closely related to the above, I saw much endorsement of investing in capacity-building at the local level, particularly from civil society. This involves empowering and enabling locals to play a part in meeting their own needs. Enhancing the capability of local stakeholders is proven to reduce overall project costs and increase opportunities to scale up development, yet it is still common for development professionals to come and go without first putting follow-up trajectories of some form in place. Capacity building at the local level is an inclusive and cost-effective way to ensure a project’s success and sustainability in the longer term.
  3. Another all-too familiar discussion – and one that is prevalent not only in land governance but exists in society more generally – was on how to bridge the seemingly ever-present gap between science and policy. It is imperative that actors are able to translate their findings for a broader audience (a great example of this is the recent Vice Versa Special Issue on Land Rights), and extrapolate the wider implications of their research, yet there is still a disconnect between research output and what decision-makers need. Peter Messerli of the University of Bern’s Global Land Programme implored, “don’t be the scientist who tries to prepare the answer before asking, ‘what is the question?’”.

…to fresh ideas

  1. Aside from these recurrent themes, some new – or revived – concepts and philosophies were (re-) introduced at the Conference. Particularly conspicuous throughout was discussion around the role that emerging technologies – such as drones and blockchain technology – could play in strengthening land governance, especially with regard to land registration and titling. It was stressed often that this should be “fit-for-purpose” – that is, it should be implemented in a way that meets local needs and expectations without being overly time-consuming or costly. To me, it seems that the technical side of this debate is already quite finely honed; at next year’s event, I hope to see that understanding of the social implications has caught up – for example, how do we ensure that the poorest of the poor can access such technologies, and what alternatives can we employ in situations where technology alone cannot meet societal needs?
  2. Others highlighted the role of dedicated and closely involved staff. It was suggested that having even a single “strategic champion” within an organisation – someone who is knowledgeable and passionate about land and understands how to translate the issue to the decision-makers – is a key factor in situating it prominently on social, political and commercial agendas. In the Netherlands we have plenty of such people, and perhaps this explains why perhaps this explains why the country is considered a trailblazer in land rights: Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Minister Lilianne Ploumen, Annelies Zoomers of Utrecht University and LANDac, and Danielle Hirsch of Both ENDS, to name but a few.
  3. Finally, I noticed a new (or perhaps “renewed” is more apt) emphasis on multi-stakeholder processes, which bring various stakeholders (including governments, companies, civil society organisations and citizens) together to jointly work towards solving common problems. These can take the form of global alliances – like the International Land Coalition – to local collaborations like the Learning Platforms LANDac is currently organising in Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda. The Netherlands already has a particularly active land-related multi-stakeholder dialogue at the national level – known as the LANDdialogue – which is a model example of taking joint responsibility for capacity building, knowledge sharing, and developing guidelines and best practices.

This “new” emphasis on multi-stakeholder platforms I found particularly encouraging, especially in my role representing LANDac, which is itself a partnership between Dutch organisations who might not otherwise meet and who now work together to ensure that human well-being is at the centre of the land debate. In a Conference session on knowledge-action networks, we discussed how such platforms will be key players in connecting research to practice and thus moving towards a truly evidence-based approach –

Multi-stakeholder processes themselves are not new and many institutions have organised themselves in such a way for many years, but the concept has become such a general term that it is easy to have lost sight of its importance. This year’s Conference paid much attention to revitalising multi-stakeholder practices, and realising the untapped potential that they hold in resolving conflict and meeting the development needs of all interested parties; perhaps this signifies that the underlying ideology of development is evolving into a more inclusive and adaptable form, as opposed to simply placing trust in market-driven forces or governmental aid.



Photo credit: Emily Feder on behalf of the World Bank.

Ayaan Abukar

21 april 2017