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Large-scale land acquisition — can we overcome transparency’s ‘dirty secret’?

Written by Anna Locke, Andrew Norton


Last week saw the annual World Bank Land and Poverty Conference in Washington DC. This event has grown substantially over the years, concentrating in one place more than 800 researchers, development practitioners and partners, civil society organisations and government representatives. 

A dominant theme that flowed across the conference was how to get the most out of large-scale land-based agricultural investments by sharing the benefits more widely and guarding more effectively against negative social impacts. The discussion highlighted the role of equitable investment models and greater transparency around land acquisitions.

These are longstanding issues; however, they have been given new urgency by the forthcoming G8 discussions in June, where David Cameron has placed the three ‘T’s’ — tax, trade and transparency — centre stage, and where the question of land transparency is being discussed actively.

Two main points stood out for us across the different panels. First is the need to pin down what is meant by ‘transparency’. For some, it meant disclosure of information; for others, disclosure plus active participation; in yet other discussions, transparency appeared to be equated with accountability. Without a common starting point, it will be hard to know if we are all talking about the same thing.

Second is the hope that transparency in its most basic form as disclosure will lead to accountability and that this will result in influence over decision-making and outcomes, with the sometimes unspoken assumption that this will happen automatically. However, it was not clear how this would happen and what could truly be achieved with transparency. There were great ambitions, with claims that transparency could unlock entrepreneurship and promote equitable growth, and even lead to political, economic and environmental sustainability and peace. That’s a whole lot resting on the provision of information.

And this brings us to what DFID’s Michael Anderson called the ‘dirty secret’ of transparency in the closing session of the conference — that there is no great evidence that information being made available through transparency initiatives is actually being used.

So, what can be done to bridge the gap between transparency and having a positive outcome for the countries and communities hosting large-scale, land-based agricultural investments?
One option put forward was that of ‘open contracting’, a push for the increased disclosure of public contracts, and increased monitoring of the implementation of these contracts. The timing of this disclosure is crucial, with pressure from some conference participants for the content of bids to be made public before contracts are awarded, rather than only after the award has been made.

Can this work? There is certainly pressure from civil society organisations in countries such as Liberia and Mozambique to do this in existing transparency initiatives, such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). However, there are concerns about the confidentiality of sensitive information and potential conflicts of interest for the organisations implementing any transparency initiative. The Head of the Secretariat for the Liberian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which covers the mining, forestry and agriculture sectors, worries that this would transform any institution implementing a transparency initiative from ‘third-party verifier’ or arbiter to a ‘player’. Would this necessarily be the case? And what else could be done?

Lorenzo Cotula of IIED emphasised the role of legal empowerment, which would strengthen accountability pathways through both legal reform and collective action for ‘bottom up checks, balances and agenda setting’. Others stressed the preconditions necessary for transparency to work, including the existence of a relatively democratic system, respect for rule of law and private property, developing innovative ways to ensure the property rights of all users are properly recognised (including secondary users – often women and minority groups) and acceptance of the need for equitable development and social justice.

Achieving transparency in land acquisitions poses a whole host of challenges that are not necessarily met by existing transparency initiatives. However, we can still learn from the experience of negotiating and implementing those initiatives in order to achieve something that could truly have teeth and make an impact. This is something that ODI’s Agricultural Development and Policy Programme will be looking at closely in the next few months as we consider what the real priority actions to support development and poverty reduction should be.