Tax & Accounting Blog

The Land Alliance Advocates to Push the Land Tenure and Property Rights Agenda Forward—a Q&A with Malcolm Childress

Aumentum, Blog April 8, 2015

Malcolm Childress

Malcolm Childress, Practice Manager for Urban and Environment for the Land Alliance

Thomson Reuters recently met with Malcolm Childress, the Practice Manager for Urban and Environment for the Land Alliance. The organization enables the prosperity of people and places by advancing learning and practice to achieve land tenure security as well as the efficient, inclusive and sustainable use of land and natural resources. In the Q&A that follows, Malcolm shares his thoughts on the mission of the Land Alliance and the lack of documented, recorded and mapped land rights in developing countries.

Q: What is the Land Alliance and why was it formed?

We are a nonprofit, non-government organization that launched in 2014. We describe ourselves as a think-and-do tank. The organization was founded by Jolyne Sanjak and Kevin Barthel, and then I joined in. We had all worked for substantial parts of our careers in the international donor world in the land administration sector as well as in some broader areas. We felt there was a gap that needed to be filled in promoting innovative work relating to the land tenure and property rights agenda to connect to bigger overall development themes. Because we weren’t making as much progress as we wanted to in our previous roles, we formed the Land Alliance to try to move the needle faster in a positive direction.

Q: You refer to yourselves as a think-and-do organization, what does that mean?

Think tanks try to drive innovation and policy reform through research, analysis, and communication across many platforms. We plan to do these things in the land administration and land tenure areas where there are a lot of research questions to ask, innovative approaches, and new technologies to assess. There are also many ways to think about how to scale-up, speed-up or improve in practice through linkages with sectors that are driving change.

But the nature of this area is practice, and we are also committed to the lessons of the day-to-day practice of land administration, land technology and land governance. The successes, the failures and the learnings in these areas take place in implementation and are about getting systems of people, institutions and technical tools to work right and together in support of bigger development goals.

As part of our “do” mission, We want to help understand how to apply concepts like fit-for-purpose, and cost-effectiveness in ways that help them easily scale up in all kinds of different country and local settings around the world. We also want to remove constraints in areas like food security, shelter, climate and peacebuilding. In addition, we need to be involved at the ground level to understand how things work in practice. We also want to be informing, comparing and validating in our analysis and our positions based on these experiences.

The Land Alliance doesn’t intend to become a large-scale implementation organization, but we do want to help test new technologies and approaches as a partner in innovative projects. We also want to be involved with learning about scaling up by partnering with organizations that are scaling up innovative approaches.

Q: The U.N. Habitat estimates that 70 percent of lands in the developing world lack documented, recorded, or mapped land rights. From your perspective, what needs to be done to close that gap?

This is a critical gap that must be addressed in two inter-related dimensions if we are to close it. In the political dimension, the land agenda needs be recognized at the higher levels of the international architecture (security, trade, migration, natural resources and energy, finance, development assistance, climate) and championed more so within national and local governments as a critical enabling factor for development success. There are critical political commitments needed around land at all levels to get traction on the big land-development challenges of food security, urbanization, climate and peacebuilding.

Technically speaking, we need to embrace the energy and incentives present in local communities and the private sector as well as the many efficiencies and innovations already taking place that can be scaled up. It’s all about getting local actors and groups with the right incentives to become more involved in land rights and land administration services with accessible technologies, such as community enterprises providing land administration services with minimal transaction costs.

In many developing country contexts, land administration services are still unaccountable, complicated or inaccessible to many parts of the population. Incentives for the kind of efficiency, speed and innovation that locally-accountable, private-sector providers, or public-private partnerships can offer are just not there in many jurisdictions. There are lots of great things happening to change this, but they need to be scaled up by mobilizing incentives and approaches like those driving innovation at scale in other industries.

Q: What’s hindering progress to close that gap?

Progress has not happened as fast as we would like to see in developing countries, and because of that, a lot of development problems are piling up. One of the major reasons is that land tenure and property rights issues are embedded fundamentally in deep political relationships that underlie the distribution of assets and power in a society. And therefore, the lack of progress reflects a lot of the vested interests in the status quo.

Land administration and the bigger political issues that stem from land tenure systems tend to get pushed out of bounds until some force for change—such as a political reform or an economic or social shift—exerts pressure on the systems. Right now, there seem to be a lot of these pressures in play: rising urban property prices, rising agricultural prices, climate change, natural disasters, a shifting energy mix, and new consumer demands for ethical supply chains. There are also governance pressures from trends around democratization and inclusion, transparency, decentralization, and the use of technology—including communications, data management, and social media.

Corruption is also a real problem globally. When there are no political incentives for systemic changes, government accountability, and technologies that provide transparency, then the corruption perpetuates itself. But if we respond to the pressures for change in a constructive way that creates viable political spaces for evolution in land tenure systems—while also championing new paradigms and new technologies—we can reduce the entrenched corruption that’s present in many countries. I admire the way groups like Transparency International are making land sectors a focus of their work in Africa and elsewhere.

I think for many people in the field, there has been a longstanding expectation that by pushing status quo technologies and operational approaches harder, the land agenda can be resolved. But our view is that it can’t be business as usual; global development challenges require a bigger response in the land sector.

There also needs to be a greater degree of political commitment from the international architecture down to the countries, and from the local levels on up, to strive for sustainable solutions to land problems. We have to more fully embrace the promise of evolving technologies.

This includes hard technologies—everything from unmanned aerial vehicles to mobile phone apps to satellite monitoring and encrypted email for whistleblowers. This also includes soft technologies, and by that I mean social innovation—from paralegals to community-driven land regularization enterprises and open data structures as well as alternative-dispute-resolution and stakeholder dialogues.

After all, we are motivated by the potential that we see for change.

For further information on land administration issues, visit the Land Alliance website at