4 Ways to Tackle the Invisible Problem of Property Rights

March 21, 2018
There are more than 1 billion invisible people around the world. They live on the fringes of society, unknown to their country and the formal economy.

It’s not that they don’t live meaningful lives, unworthy of recognition. They are farmers, merchants, caregivers, and more. Many are the foundation of their local communities, but they’ve fallen through the cracks of society at large.

Why are they invisible? There are many reasons, from lack of birth certificates and bank accounts to working in the informal economy. But there’s another important factor that is often overlooked by the development community, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and funders. These invisible people — and sometimes their entire communities — lack property rights, the proof of their legitimate rights to the land and property where they live and work. As economist Hernando de Soto says, they have houses, but no title. They have land, but no deed. They have businesses, but no statute of incorporation.

Without that formal proof, these people have no enforceable right to their land and property. This leaves them extremely vulnerable to natural disasters or unscrupulous real estate developers, mining corporations, or family members — any of which could tear them away from their homes and have them spending the rest of their lives trying to reclaim what was once theirs.

Much like these people, the topic of property rights is largely invisible in society. Property rights are the backbone to privileges that many of us forget we have. Opening a bank account, enrolling children in school, and accessing government benefits or subsidies all require formal paperwork and proofs of address that can come with formal property rights.

What’s not invisible is the ripple effect of property rights. When people feel safe and secure about their land and property, they are able to invest in home improvements, healthcare, and insurance. They can access loans and start small businesses. Communities see less poverty, increased school attendance, greater equality for women, and better land and resource conservation.

However, when we talk about those larger impacts on society, the global community rarely points to property rights as a trigger. In fact, the topic is tucked away under Sustainable Development Goal Indicator 1.4.2, and advocates are still working to ensure that it remains part of SDGs at all.

One reason is that property rights is a non-issue for countries that have a functional system for mapping and managing these rights. People don’t think twice about their ability to buy, sell, and invest in land and property with the reassurance that their rights to that land and property will be protected and enforced by their government.

However, that is often not the case in emerging markets. Here, many countries lack accurate maps and effective land administration systems to record and manage people’s property rights. For instance, in the Philippines, it can take nearly a year and cost over $300 to get a title document¹. The time and cost involved is prohibitive for many low income families, and keeps them locked out of the formal system.

Weak infrastructure leads to confusion, frustration or apathy for people living in these countries. Many either don’t know how to get proper documentation or have chosen to live outside the system because of the time, cost — and often fear — associated with getting proper documentation. And even if someone gets the documents they need, there’s no guarantee the government has an effective jurisdiction system in place to enforce their rights should they be threatened by a competing claim.

The result is that many countries do not know how many people are currently off the grid, where they are living, and what their living conditions are like. From a development standpoint, that makes it nearly impossible to extend services and improve lives if you have no idea who these people are and where they live. What’s more, experts estimate that there is upwards of $170 trillion worth of undeveloped resources and assets around the world — land and property that is considered dead capital without property rights.

That’s why for the last two years, Omidyar Network has worked to mainstream the topic of property rights to help generate greater awareness and action. We’re investing in solutions that help more people and places be known, unlocking economic opportunity for individuals and communities. Along with the many organizations and institutions that have spent decades advocating for better property rights, we’ve helped spark some progress. We’ve supported journalists who have helped shine a light on property rights with headlines in the Financial Times and National Geographic and organizations like The Asia Foundation that helped the Philippines become the first country to officially adopt drone technology to improve land titling.

But there’s still much to be done. The solutions are out there — it’s a matter of harnessing talent and resources to make to bring those solutions to life. Below are four ways academics, policymakers, entrepreneurs, funders, and journalists can join us:

Start the conversation with better research

For any solution to work, we have to understand the people and communities we’re trying to serve. Groundbreaking data and insights are uncovering why people lack property rights and how to help them gain formally recognized documentation. We support the Global Property Rights Index (or PRIndex), the world’s first global dataset that measures how secure people feel about their homes and farm land. With PRindex and other studies, we aim for academics to build on initial research, policymakers to recognize the incredible need in their countries, and entrepreneurs to use the data and insights to develop customized solutions for these communities.

Break down barriers through technology

From mobile phone penetration to the ubiquity of drones, technology and human ingenuity are making it quicker, cheaper, and more effective to map and administer property rights. Take Radiant, an open geospatial data platform that makes previously cost-prohibitive Earth imagery available to all and also teaches people how to use the data. Or Suyo, a company that offers affordable, reliable property formalization services through their use cell phones, satellites, and local partnerships in Latin America.

Additionally, we’re funding a pilot project in Ghana led by Clark University that combines human and machine intelligence to develop a scalable, fast, and cost-effective land cover mapping system — a project that has the potential to completely change how the world approaches mapping.

Through our investments in technology, we aim to empower more entrepreneurs to build the solutions that individuals and communities need and encourage more funders to join us in supporting this important work.

Improve delivery through better partnerships

Bureaucratic inefficiencies and weak capacity are at the heart of many countries’ challenges with property rights. But there are a growing number of success stories that must be shared and replicated, such as those by studied by Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies program. Companies, governments, and NGO groups can, and should, work together to build new approaches to delivering property rights to citizens, and policymakers must create the regulatory environment needed to foster these new approaches.

Grow the movement through greater awareness

Awareness matters — when people know about the issue of property rights, we see increased demand from the public, greater accountability with policymakers, and equitable funding for those working on the front lines. We support people and organizations helping tell the stories of those who lack property rights, such as the journalists at Thomson Reuters Foundation and their property rights-focused site PLACE and The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Across our investments, we’re united by one guiding truth: we believe that all people deserve to be seen. There’s no cure-all that will suddenly make more than 1 billion people visible. In fact, we support several different paths to getting there — digital identification and financial inclusion are two others we are working on at Omidyar Network.

When combined with secure property rights, we believe that poverty cycles can be broken, communities can be rebuilt, and future generations will have the safe, stable foundations they need to grow and prosper. Through our collective efforts, we work to see a day when all people receive the formal recognition they deserve and can embrace the economic opportunities they need to thrive.

Learn more about Omidyar Network’s Property Rights initiative in the video above, featuring Shreya Deb, principal of investments.


¹Arnante, Angela, Jaime Faustino, Rene Sanapo. “Apps and Drones for Better Land Governance.” Presentation at the Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, Washington, DC, March 19–23, 2018.

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