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Land: Changing contexts, changing relationships, changing rights

Elizabeth Daley and Mary Hobley

September 2005

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Land has long been and still is considered to be one of the central factors in development, as these recent World Bank and Oxfam policy statements both show:

"…researchers and development practitioners have long recognized that providing poor people with access to land and improving their ability to make effective use of the land they occupy is central to reducing poverty and empowering poor people and communities" (Deininger 2003:xx).

"…secure access to land is an essential prerequisite for diverse land-based livelihoods, for sustainable agriculture, for economic growth, poverty elimination, and for achieving power in markets" (Palmer 2005:1).

Typically land is analysed with a sectoral focus on land for agricultural production in rural areas, land for shelter or high-value commercial use in urban areas, or land-grabbing at the peri-urban interface. While these are important issues, the historical and political significance of land is much broader. Land issues are politically sensitive in many developing countries, complicated by the presence of powerful vested interests and sometimes accompanied by conflict; the ability to control land is linked specifically to issues of power. In this paper we draw attention to the effects of changes in land policy and administration for the poor, arguing that land rights (by which we mean especially access to and control of land and land use, rather than necessarily land ownership) can be, and often are, instruments in local politics and power relations. We highlight local processes of differentiation and examine how relationships between land, livelihoods and poverty are changing in the current context of rapid rural-urban change and 'de-agrarianisation'. We ask what entry-points there are for pro-poor change in and through land policy and administration.

The audience for this paper is internal to DFID advisers. We seek to reach across the rural-urban divide, arguing that support to land-related initiatives must be built on an understanding of the spatial, social, economic and political interconnectedness of the lives and livelihoods of rural, urban and peri-urban poor. The paper is wide-ranging and comparative but contextualised with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa and South and South-east Asia. We situate land policy historically and in the wider development context, as a basis for understanding the current context within which DFID engages with land. We then set out a way of approaching contemporary land issues from a pro-poor perspective. We focus on two key areas of current policy interest, namely land registration and titling and decentralisation of land administration systems, and make some practical recommendations with respect to DFID's continuing involvement with processes of land policy formulation and implementation in developing countries. Given time and space constraints we are unable to address all aspects of land policy and administration; in particular we say little on the issue of redistribution, which was recently addressed elsewhere in DFID (DFID & Adams 2004).

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