The Sustainable Development Goals: Land Tenure & Measurable Outcomes

Frank Pichel, CPO

For years, governments, civil society, and multi-lateral organizations have worked to build consensus regarding what sustainable development means and how it can be measured, in preparation for establishing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The 17 goals and 169 targets outlined in the SDGs are intended to set the agenda for international development over the next 15 years and to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expiring at the end of 2015. The final document is expected to be adopted during the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York September 25th – 27th.

For those of us working to ensure that all members of society – particularly marginalized individuals and communities – are able to access land governance systems which ensure tenure security, be it formal or informal, there was some initial disappointment that there is no single goal that focuses on land tenure. This was particularly frustrating given the global momentum gained during the negotiation and subsequent international endorsement of The Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security. However, land tenure is a cross-cutting issue, and a number of the targets outlined within the SDGs directly relate to property rights.

I will refrain from assessing the details of how land tenure relates to various SDGs targets, as this has already been well covered in a blog post by Tiernan Mennen. What is in many ways more critical than the goals and targets outlined in the SDGs is how the progress will be measured – the indicators.  At last count, there are just over 300 proposed indicators to track compliance, and the debate continues over the usefulness and focus of the land rights indicator. According to the List of Indicator Proposals released in August 2015 by the Interagency and Expert Group on SDGs Indicators, the land indicator as it stands is “Share of women among agricultural land owners by age and location,” a particularly narrow indicator which fails in many respects to address key land issues. It’s worth noting that the Global Donor Working Group on Land recently criticized this indicator, and instead proposed:

Percentage of women, men, indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) with secure rights to land, property, and natural resources, measured by:

  1. Percentage with legally documented or recognized evidence of tenure, and
  2. Percentage who perceive their rights are recognized and protected.

This revised indicator is supported by both the Global Donor Working Group on Land, as well as a civil society coalition led by Oxfam and the Global Land Indicators Initiative.

While I am hopeful that the indicator proposed in August is replaced by the version developed and supported by the global land community (a much more comprehensive and useful indicator), my primary interest is in how the progress against the indicator (whichever indicator it ends up being) will be monitored and measured to reflect the overall improvement by society against the goals of the SDGs.  With the targets around land and the land indicator, in conjunction with the endorsed Voluntary Guidelines, the necessary political mandate is there, but will the financial resources and political willpower be made available to systematically monitor the global land indicator? Will programs be enacted, and funded, which lead to progress, or will the SDGs languish as an unfunded mandate? Will international pressure be applied, and support provided, to countries that are falling short of targets? It’s too early to tell, but these are potentially crippling hurdles that must be considered if the SDGs (in tandem with related ongoing efforts) are to succeed.

Regardless of adopted indicator, how can the number of IPLCs with strengthened tenure security and women land owners be tracked and improved upon? High quality data collection is never easy (or cheap), especially on a global scale. Since the land indicator is only one of hundreds of indicators being assessed and analyzed, it could easily be lost in the avalanche of data.

In order to make measureable and significant progress against the goals relating to land tenure over the next 15 years, I suggest this can only be done effectively by reinventing antiquated land rights documentation and application processes. This effort must be coupled with a dedicated political will and tangible support for countries working  to update their laws and policies around land administration.

As for tracking progress against the proposed indicators in land?  If governments embrace the concept of open data for land rights and leverage modern registry and cadaster management approaches, tracking progress would be as simple as running an analysis of registry data and conducting field research to assess perception of protected rights.

These two concepts, open data in land and technologically appropriate tools for collecting and managing property rights data, are the central tenets of our mission at Cadasta and guide our work.

Editor: Lindsay Oliver, Communications Specialist
Image via United Nations.

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