The case for thinking local: community-driven land information systems

Kashmiri farmers work in paddy fields at Bandipora, north of Srinagar June 10, 2014. Sowing operations in rice, pulses and cotton have already started in many growing areas of Northwest and Southern India, taking advantage of pre-monsoon showers. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A lot of money has been wasted on efforts to build large land registries for developing nations. Let's rethink our approach, say land information system specialists Frank Pichel, Maria Lodin, and Kent Nilsson

For the last decade, the international development community has – at great expense – repeatedly and unsuccessfully worked to create sustainable large-scale and cost-effective modern land tenure systems for emerging economies.

In Ghana, the World Bank spent many millions building a land registry which was plagued by delays, costs overruns, and inefficiencies . In Mongolia, the Asian Development Bank financed a system for land registration that was found to be “less than effective.” Lesotho has tried, for the most part unsuccessfully, multiple digital land administration systems.

To be sure, these efforts were much needed in these countries and in many others given estimates that 70 percent of the land in emerging economies is unregistered, the vast majority of sub-Saharan African and South Asian countries rely on outdated paper-based land registries or unwritten customary systems, and research demonstrating that a functional land administration system is the foundation of development. But each of these projects, and the many other failed projects like them, illustrate just how challenging it is to build large, cost-effective, modern, land administration systems that are sustainable after the funder has left the scene.

These projects bring to the fore a number of questions. Chief among them: should the international development community be solely focused on creating national-level land information systems, or could those be supplemented by more affordable, sustainable, and accessible fit for purpose systems?  These localized systems might more quickly serve the pressing needs of communities to defend their land and resources from threats by building an evidence base and advocacy case for their rights to land, and this data could be incrementally upgraded to eventually integrate with national systems.

There is some early evidence that local systems may avoid some of the foils of national systems.

My organization, Cadasta Foundation, in partnership with Kartverket and Lantmäteriet, intends on testing this in a new project using open source software in Africa later this year. But more research and discussion on this subject is urgently needed and those attending next week’s World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty would do well to explore this.

Thus far, the evidence suggests that national land administration systems face five formidable barriers in emerging economies:

1. Lack of Capacity:

In many emerging economies, land agency staff often have little experience with computers. Training or replacing these staff is often not an option given the shortage of IT professionals in the developing world. In these geographies, IT skills are often in such high demand that they will not consider nor stay long in a governmental position (with its standard modest paycheck).

2. Lack of Funding:

Maintaining these systems, including replacing computer hardware and paying for ongoing software maintenance or professional technical support is expensive. Costs are even higher in emerging economies where additional hardware such as generators (and fuel), air conditioners, and voltage regulators are often required. Most government land agencies do not have the funding to keep such systems operational beyond the funding of a donor project.

3. Corruption:

Some government officials simply undermine these new systems which increase transparency and thereby reduce opportunities to request or require “unofficial fees.” According to Transparency International, land related agencies remain the third most corrupt government agency globally, behind only the police and the judiciary (Transparency International, 2014).

4. Government Centralization:

Many farmers in emerging economies live in remote areas where there are no government offices or officials to record land transactions. Farmers who want to formalize and record their land transactions must, at significant expense, travel to the city to document their transaction. Land records, therefore, quickly become outdated as subsequent transactions aren’t recorded.

5. The Transition from Paper to Digital:

An often overlooked issue in replacing a paper-based registry to a digital land information system is the need to change approval processes. Processes that involved paper files, stamps, and signatures require a shift in organizational policies and practices.

There is early evidence that recent innovations in technology can address some of these challenges and boost the effectiveness of localized land information systems, presenting the global development community with a different model for land information systems.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

Easier: Smaller systems are easier to use, require significantly less hardware, and necessitate shorter trainings for fewer people.  And now, data on such systems can be stored on the cloud with standard security protocols, preventing theft and reducing opportunities for corrupt activities.

Vested Interest: Locals trained to use innovative yet simple to use GIS software can continually update the system and are more likely to stay on to serve their community. They have a vested interest in keeping the system running either out of the desire to keep the peace and protect the rights of neighbors or because they recognize the potential for property tax revenue based on this data (which can in turn be used to both run the system and fund a project that benefits the community, boosting local support).

Local knowledge: Because such small-scale systems are often implemented by community members with local knowledge, they tend to be more equitable, provided the responsible actors are committed to addressing the rights of disadvantaged groups and trained in land law.

All of this said, land information systems at the local level are not without challenges. Technology, even a single desktop computer, can be prohibitively expensive for many rural communities.  The single desktop computer is also vulnerable to theft or hardware and software failure. Furthermore, the data in such a desktop system can be, if steps aren’t taken on the front end, difficult to share with partners, beneficiaries or other relevant parties.

Nonetheless, this model might be an effective first step.

We know that the land administrations systems that exist in the US and elsewhere in the global north are still often a work in progress and were not developed and implemented overnight. In the US, for example, emergency aid after Hurricane Katrina was delayed because FEMA did not have access to land ownership records. Yet, despite the knowledge that many land administration systems in the global north developed organically and in fits and starts, we continue to try to establish a functional land administration system for developing economies in a single go.

Perhaps it is time to explore a more incrementalist approach.

Frank Pichel is Chief Program Officer of Cadasta Foundation, a global non-profit harnessing technology to simplify, modernize, and expedite the documentation of land and resource rights around the world.

Maria Lodin is Senior Advisor to Kartverket, the Norwegian Mapping Authority, Center for Property Rights and Development.

Kent Nilsson Senior Technical Advisor to Lantmäteriet. For more information about community based land information systems visit and read the full paper from the authors presented at the 2017 World Bank Land & Poverty Conference.

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