Hernando de Soto – Property Rights 20 years on.

I have blogged quite a bit on this topic using the work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto and his book ‘The Mystery of Capital’. There was also some great footage from the Commanding Heights Series which showed de Soto traveling in Peru and talking about what he sees as the main obstacle to the development of markets and capitalism within developing countries – property rights.

Without a title to a property nobody knows who owns what or where, who is accountable for the performance of obligations, who is responsible for losses and fraud, or what mechanisms are available to enforce payment for services and goods delivered. Consequently, most potential assets in these countries have not been identified or realised; there is little accessible capital, and the exchange economy is constrained and sluggish. However in the West, where property rights and other legal documentation exist, assets take on a role of securing loans and credit for a variety of purposes – building capital with capital.

De Soto estimated that about 85% of urban parcels in Third World and former communist nations, and between 40 and 53 % of rural parcels, are held in such a way that they cannot be used to create capital. The total value of the real estate held but not legally owned by the poor of these countries is at least $9.3 trillion – $13.5trn in today’s money. Studies suggest that titling has boosted agricultural productivity, especially in Asia and Latin America. The World Bank wants 70% of people to have secure property rights by 2030. Despite all these efforts, only 30% of the world’s people have formal titles today. In rural sub-Saharan Africa a dismal 10% do. Just 22% of countries, including only 4% of African ones, have mapped and registered the private land in their capital cities.

PRINDEX is an organisation that measures global perceptions of land and property rights – see video below.

In July 2020 they published an informative report on tenure security – “Comparative Report – A global assessment of perceived tenure security from 140 countries”. Some of the findings from the report:

  • Nearly 1 billion people around the world consider it likely or very likely that they will be evicted from their land or property in the next five years. This represents nearly 1 in 5 adults in the 140 countries surveyed.
  • Levels of perceived insecurity vary by region. While the greatest number of people who are insecure live South Asia (22% of people), sub-Saharan Africa (26%) and the Middle East and North Africa (28%) each have higher proportions of insecurity.
  • People living in cities experience higher levels of insecurity than those living in rural areas (18% vs. 16%).
  • The possession of formal land and property rights documentation tends to be associated with greater confidence of perceived tenure security compared to owners and renters who have no formal documentation at all (80% vs. 63%)
  • Nearly half of all women in sub-Saharan Africa (48%) feel insecure about their land and property rights when faced with the prospect of widowhood or divorce.
  • Tenure insecurity is strongly linked to age. Overall, 24% of young people aged 18-25 felt insecure compared to just 11% of people aged over 65.
  • Tenure insecurity is associated with economic factors in regions that are highly developed, such as North America, Europe, Australasia and parts of Asia.
  • Perceived tenure insecurity is closely correlated with other economic, human development, and governance indicators, including gross domestic product (GDP), World Governance Indicators (WGI), the Multidimensional Poverty Index, and the Human Development Index. There is a particularly strong correlation between tenure insecurity and the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

Below is a graph from the report:

Perceived tenure insecurity as measured across all properties and plots of land that a respondent has rights to access or use, not just their ‘main’ property.

Concerns

In the developing world having the authority to allocate land has great benefits.

  • Politicians use land as a way of rewarding supporters and themselves
  • Politicians / Chiefs use their powers to sell the land to mining companies / developers without the consent of their people
  • Some seize the land because it is deemed to be in the “public interest”

A crucial lesson of the past few decades, however, is that if land reform is treated purely as a top-down technical task, it will not work well. It is not enough simply to map and register a property, as several high-profile efforts show. Land is an emotive issue, especially where memories of colonial expropriation still linger. As Mr de Soto argued, capitalism should be for the many, not just the few. The Economist – September 12th 2020

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