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Transparency and governance in the land sector: two sides of the same coin?

Written by Anna Locke


Land transparency has been on the public agenda again since the G8 summit in June this year. Two events in the same week in October showcased the issue: the Open Government Partnership annual summit in London (which publicised the recent Open Government Guide on Land), and the Global Soil Week conference in Berlin, which dedicated a session to partnerships for responsible land governance – an issue that is rarely discussed by soil scientists.

A couple of things hit me from these recent discussions. First, the public discussion has broadened from land transparency to land governance. The G8 communique published in June does not refer to a land transparency initiative as such but talks about ‘global activities to improve land tenure governance’.

Transparency served as an immediate umbrella to bring together different initiatives in a very short time in the run-up to the G8 summit 2013 but seems to have been a launch pad rather than the end point. Similarly, the Open Government Guide on Land focuses on land governance while acknowledging the need for transparency, participation and accountability at the heart of open government.

I welcome this broader agenda as it provides more of a framework to see how transparency can effect meaningful change.

However, at the risk of being pedantic on this issue (I have form on this – see my blog on the World Bank conference) once again, I want to pin down the terms of the debate and look at the underlying assumptions. It is important to make sure that we are all talking about the same thing, particularly as we prepare for an ODI Roundtable on the whole issue of Land Transparency in December. 

First, definitions

What is land governance? The Open Government Guide on Land defines it as a series of processes, including recognition, registration and enforcement of land tenure rights, land-use administration, management planning and taxation, information provision and dispute resolution.

It then identifies the elements that characterise good governance: governments should help to ensure that these processes are ‘clear, transparent and fair… [with] human rights of citizens protected’; that they include ‘accountable decision-making about how best to use land… improving the openness’ [of those processes, I assume]; and that they ensure ‘consultation with those potentially affected by changes… [which] can help communities and households protect their rights’.

The Guide suggests the Land Governance Assessment Framework (LGAF) mechanism launched by the World Bank as the main reference point for a baseline evaluation of the state of land governance. The LGAF measures governance in five thematic areas: legal and institutional framework; land use planning, management and taxation; management of public land; public provision of land information; and dispute resolution and conflict management. In turn, the main reference point for the LGAF is the World Bank’s definition of governance  as the ‘manner in which public officials and institutions acquire and exercise the authority to shape public policy and provide public goods and services’.

I would be more specific on two things. Yes, the discussion of land governance highlights the issue of how institutions can carry out the work of land titling, registration and administration. But it also needs to look at how they take and implement decisions on land – who takes part in decisions on land allocation, use and management, and how different interests in competing social and economic functions of land are reconciled. That goes beyond consultation. Indeed, it goes to the heart of the political economy of decision-making and the power relations that are involved. This is recognised implicitly in the Open Government Guide in its recommendation for participatory land and resource use planning.

And what is the role of the private sector in all of this? Does the shift (back?) from transparency to governance mean a refocusing on governments, instead of the broader private sector actors targeted under pre-G8 discussions? These have been targeted directly through efforts to increase contract disclosure and public provision of information on holdings.

Second, what is the relationship that is assumed between transparency and governance?

The G-8 Communique talks about the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure as ‘providing global policy guidance for good land governance and transparency’. So are they of equal importance or does one feed into the other?

The Open Government Guide takes the transparency of processes as a central element that feeds into governance (openness and accountability are others). The LGAF recognises the role of transparency in promoting better governance in the land sector, particularly in land-use restrictions, valuations, expropriation, the transfer of public to private land and in levying fees for different services provided by governments. Its emphasis on the provision of information, particularly through registries and cadastres, is the starting point for transparency in any form.

The work of ODI (ADP, PoGo) and others, such as Global Witness, on transparency reveals a growing recognition of the importance of transparency for good governance. But it also shows that transparency is not enough, on its own to achieve the standard of governance in the land sector that we are striving for. This was also acknowledged in the Berlin discussions in October.

So, what can we take away from this? I see three key lessons.

1.       Yes, the shift to a broader perspective on land governance is useful. But we need to acknowledge areas of agreement and difference on what we mean by governance, particularly in the presence of conflicting interests in land processes, and recognise the role of the private sector.

2.       We need to be clear about the role of transparency in promoting good governance – transparency and governance are not two sides of the same coin although progress on one depends on progress in the other.

3.       And finally, let’s carry the debate on the pathways from transparency to accountability to meaningful change into the debate on governance. This means talking about the content, timing and transmission of information; mechanisms and timescales to ensure meaningful participation and consultation; and getting accurate indicators that measure impact, not just processes.

All of these will issues will be on the table at the ODI Roundtable on Land Transparency at ODI on 10 December and we look forward to a rich debate.

Thanks to Giles Henley, ODI Research Officer, who provided useful comments on this blog.