Cato Paper – Using Technology to Solve Conflicts with Land Registration and Property Rights in the Developing World

In all nation states, governments claim the right to control and regulate land use and to allocate land rights within their sovereign territory. However, in most poor countries, the actual practices on the ground differ substantially from the government’s records and rules.

A new Cato paper by Peter F. Schaefer and Clayton Schaefer suggests that informal communities and support organizations can and should engage in self-registration of property and transactions, in essence bypassing incompetent, inefficient, or hostile land registry bureaucracies, until they reach the critical mass necessary to achieve formal recognition of their land rights.

In An Innovative Approach to Land Registration in the Developing World: Using Technology to Bypass the Bureaucracy, the authors argue that inexpensive hand-held devices, satellite imagery, and database technologies can enable those in the developing world to identify and settle property claims, increasing residents’ security and improving prospects for eventual formal titling from local governments.

Aid agencies and governments have spent billions on property rights programs across the developing world. However, these projects have generally failed to protect the claims of the impoverished majority in most developing countries. Bureaucratization of registry programs creates top-down systems ran by politicians with benefits accruing to cronies while squatters and large areas of land are excluded from registration.

The authors contend that a system of extra-governmental property rights based on open access and community participation – a system capable of holding governments accountable when they violate the rights of their own citizens – could be the first step in a process that leads to secure and legally recognized land tenure, active real estate markets, affordable secured credit and accountability for governments.

Combining proven data collection techniques with technology tutorials will enable individuals and community organizations to prepare parcel survey data for submission to publicly available databases. Hand-held devices, including cell phones, can then be used to access new land registries. The authors determine these tools will empower individuals to self-register their small land holdings, bypassing the bureaucracies currently impeding progress.

Schaefer and Schaefer contrast this simple registry process with the existing institutions that work on behalf of authoritarian or predatory governments. In most poor countries, the local property practices place informal owners at risk of extortion or expropriation by corrupt bureaucrats. Digital mapping and online registries allow poor communities to create their own records, which will serve as the foundation of future official record-keeping.

Property rights are critical to economic growth, and the developing world will be strengthened by adopting a bottom-up approach to mapping property claims in informally titled areas.

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