June 18, 2012

The importance of speed for land rights in post-conflict reconstruction

Legal Access to Land in Kabul is a constant dilemma (Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012)
Afghanistan has seen the completion of various development projects such as the building of roads, the establishment of a Coca-Cola plan, and the rebuilding of the central bank. But everyday in Kabul I witness a hard learned lesson.  The inability for people to access legal title to land has crippled the development of the city.   

Many of the people affected lost their claim to family own land during their displacement, as more than 6 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan or Iran since 2002.   There have also been about 1 million people who were internally displaced by war and have returned to their homes, only to find that they have no means to prove ownership, have been replaced by new occupants, or have found the landscape entirely changed.   There have also been an influx of migrants into Kabul, searching new opportunities or returning from diaspora.   In Kabul,  80% of the residents occupy informal housing settlements.  Many of these settlements are built on government owned land.

The Government of Afghanistan has struggled with informal settlement.  I would say that for 10 years the local and state governments have been rather obsessed with it as an issue, although perhaps not with the mind of solving it.  Many of these settlements are poorly constructed, lack appropriate sanitation, and are seen as a public health threat.  They are considered a bottleneck to development.  A few weeks ago, when conducting a training seminar at City Hall, I asked some engineers what they suggest is the best way to proceed when an informal settlement does not fit into the city master plan.  The response was "send in the police."  

But if a region has a long embedded history of violence, why would a government pursue policies that facilitate discontent, economic striation, legal marginalization, and civil disobedience?  

Open-air drainage ditch under construction in Kabul
That is not good planning.

Because the problem of land ownership was not reconciled in 2001 or 2002, when the city had 1.5 million people, it now struggles everyday with the consequences amid a population over over 5 million.  We have no effective postal system.  We have few street names.  Only now, 10 years later, are the streets being paved around the city and drainage ditches are being dug out.  We have no underground sewage system.  Utilities are a jumbled mess and electrical fires are common a common occurrence.  Nearly all of this chaos could have been avoided had the local government supported the provision of land rights to new occupants. Not to mention the grave economic loss to the city as land loses its productivity when has no determinable owner.  In the meanwhile, corruption has skyrocketed over land access and many people point fingers at the Mayor of Kabul.

I understand the desire to return to one's original home or to strive for urban policy that will provide high quality services.  But these personal interests must not cloud ones judgement.   In post-conflict environments, the speed at which policy is shaped and implemented is essential to avoid slipping backward into chaos.  Policies must be objective and realist.

For years the World Bank has encouraged the Government of Afghanistan to simply recognize many of the informal communities around Kabul.  Now in a massive undertaking, the USAID funded Project LARA is being implemented nationwide at the cost of 41.8 million dollars!  In an attempt to solve all the problems of land use, access, and development, this sprawling project could have been easily avoided about 10 years ago.  With a price tag of 41.8 million, there is also no guarantee of success.

Unfortunately,  I suspect many other countries will not learn this lesson from Afghanistan, and will instead choose to repeat the same decisions as made in Afghanistan.


  1. I actually showed this to a friend of mine, who's a business lawyer from brisbane, and the first thing he said was, "What a mess." Now that I think about it, maybe they should send lawyers over there as well to help citizens in their legal claims and speed up the development of the country.

  2. You and your friend are correct, the issue is quite a mess. In the article I refer to Project LARA, the USAID funded initiative to sort out land ownership rights in Afghanistan. This is more or less what you describe, providing legal assistance and legal training to speed up the process. In Afghanistan however, the government owns the majority of the land (as remnant of Soviet influence) and this greatly undermines the ability to move forward. In other countries the situation might not be as complicated, it greatly depends on the structure of the constitution and the desire for politicians to pursue the greater good over their own personal interests.