An Innovative Way to Title Property in Poor Countries

Over the past couple of decades, a consensus has emerged among development practitioners and over a broad ideological spectrum about the need to legally recognize and protect the property rights of the world’s poor. Yet land tenure and the holding of other forms of property of billions of poor people remains informal.

As Peter Schaefer and Clay Schaefer explain in a Cato study released yesterday, one reason there has been little progress in titling or registering the property of the poor is that powerful interests in developing countries block reform. And in countries that have particularly predatory governments, there may be little actual demand to title property. Why would you publically register your property if the result will be confiscatory taxation, political persecution, or the need to pay bribes to avoid complying with prohibitively expensive regulations?

The authors propose a novel, bottom-up approach to registering property that gets around those problems: using a simple, hand-held GPS device, individuals in poor communities can inexpensively map their property claims in an informal community registry that is publically accessible on the internet. In the vast majority of cases, there is already a consensus about what informal property belongs to whom, so disputes on boundary issues that might arise are typically not significant and are readily solved. This community mapping approach is already partly being employed in parts of Africa and India. Because such registration is voluntary, it would only take place where people actually demand it; and because it is informal, it need not rely on unreliable government bureaucracies to make it happen.

Were communities to create “live” documents of their registries on the internet, as the authors propose, they would increase tenure security by providing useful information to investors, neighbors, multinational corporations and even governments. As Peter and Clay Schaefer note, “When a community achieves a critical mass of registered users, it will be very difficult for their governments to ignore the claims that have been recorded.” That approach will also make it more politically feasible for poor people to negotiate with the authorities and gain formal title to their property.