The Sequence of Land Reform and Political Reform

US Secretary of State John Kerry sits with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Lancaster House in London, December 4, 2014. Photo by U.S. Department of State.

Guest post by Ilia Murtazashvili and Jennifer Murtazashvili.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry following the London Conference on Afghanistan, December 4, 2014. Photo via U.S. Department of State.

In Afghanistan, citizens are increasingly frustrated by land grabbing, such as when local business interests collude with warlords and government officials across the country to acquire land. In recent days, the Washington Post reported that perceptions of collusion among government officials and local warlords and businessmen has become such a problem that it has undermined confidence in the government. Some journalists have observed that threats from land conflict pose a greater threat to stability in Afghanistan than the Taliban. Recognizing these problems, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani—with support from international patrons—has promised a solution in the form of legal titling and land reform.

The case for land reform as a way to improve political order is by no means a new one. Barrington Moore and Samuel Huntington viewed landholding inequality as a primary driver of civil conflict. Recent scholarship has also illustrated the ways that insurgency is more likely under conditions of landholding inequality. To remedy this inequality, some have found that land reform—usually the redistribution of land—can serve as an effective counterinsurgency policy. Similarly, Hernando de Soto has argued that legal titling—the formal registration of land ownership through a formal, judicial process—can serve as an effective counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategy. Based on the familiar opportunity costs explanation for political violence, de Soto claims that legal titling is the key to unleashing the productive energies of capitalism and an economic answer to political violence.

In a recent paper that appeared in Conflict, Security, and Development, we argue that land reforms such as land redistribution or legal titling are unlikely to improve political order in fragile states. Land reform makes less sense in contexts where land grabbing is largely driven by the government. A report issued in 2014 by the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the Afghan Parliament) revealed that vast amounts of land grabbing, particularly in urban areas, has taken place since 2001 and has been facilitated by government officials at the local level. Some families who have long been settled frequently find themselves evicted by the very government that they are told will now protect their interests.

In such contexts, we contend that land reform should be sequenced after the government has been able to build a judiciary that can impartially resolve disputes and security forces that can fairly enforce decisions once they are on the books. When extremely weak states embark on such reforms before addressing these other issues, they risk falling into the trap seen in Afghanistan—the government promises land reform, but when such reforms commence, the state becomes an important driver of land tenure insecurity.

Our work also helps to understand why legal titling has not worked in Afghanistan. Like most fragile states, legal titling has been a component of state-building efforts in Afghanistan. Yet such efforts to register land through a formal, legal process appear premature. Those implementing legal titling programs have admitted that their programs have largely failed as a result of the lack of political will on the part of government officials, antiquated legal frameworks, and the absence of state administrative capacity.

An alternative to legal titling in persistently weak states is anarchy of land governance. In the absence of a competent state, customary authority in Afghanistan has made a comeback. Survey data show that the vast majority of Afghans actually own land, but few have state-backed legal titles. Instead, most possess customary titles and turn to customary venues to resolve disputes when they arise. These data show citizen satisfaction with customary forms of dispute resolution far surpass those of the state.

Yet there may be an even better option than anarchy or legal titling. Many of the land registration projects to date have actively limited a role for the state, focusing instead on recording who owns land at the community level. These projects do not rely on anarchy because they are development projects. Nor are they legal titling, because the state does not register ownership through a legal process. Rather, they simply record land at the community level through a customary process of identifying land ownership. In our review of land recording projects in Afghanistan, we find that community based reforms that eschew a role for the state are more likely to improve household land tenure security than legal titling.

In theory, embarking on land reform can increase political order in a state such as Afghanistan. However, for such reforms to work, the state must have the capacity to record ownership and to neutrally adjudicate and enforce decisions made by impartial courts. Until there is substantial progress made in establishing political capacity, political constraints, and locally inclusive political institutions, land reforms put the proverbial cart before the ox.

Ilia Murtazashvili is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. His research considers land governance in developed and developing contexts. Jennifer Murtazashvili is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She employs a wide range of field methods – including ethnographic work, surveys, and experiments – in conflict zones to understand the relationship between informal order and state building.

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