I’m a bad blogger today, but a good conversationalist. Aspen isn’t bloggable in the same way as a conference like TED or Pop!Tech – we’re in a large music hall without wifi or power, and I’ve got the only laptop out in sight. And I’ve been spending less time transcribing sessions and more catching up with old friends.
But fortunately I ducked back into the “tent” to catch the end of a talk I’d really wanted to hear, a dialog between Secretary Madeline Albright and scholar Hernando de Soto. De Soto is a proponent for property rights. He argues that a key towards economic development is ensuring that people in the developing world can document ownership of their houses and land. This is critical for economic development – in the US, most entrepreneurs fund their businesses based on mortgaging their houses. You can’t do this if you can’t document your ownership…
Secretary Albright connects these issues to the problem of failed states. “Failed states come about when we don’t know who owns things, who’s in charge, or who’s responsible.” It sounds absurd to push for property rights in a place like Darfur, she tells us, but that’s how we prevent state failure and a critical piece of recovery from crisis situations.
De Soto observes that much of the world’s agricultural production is being produced by a small set of nations – the US, China, Canada, Australia – the breadbasket of the world. There’s far more space available in Latin America and Africa, and countries like China are now acquiring huge swaths of land in Africa, as are companies like Unilever and Hershey. (Or Daewoo in Madagascar.) People argue that property rights are a right wing concept and that we shouldn’t be emphasizing them in the developing world. But if we don’t, De Soto argues, we’re going to end up with an African continent owned by large corporations with no rights for the current landowners. This may sound like a right-wing movement, but it’s the way we give people sufficient rights that we don’t end up with peasant insurgencies like the Shining Path.
Albright suggests that we need to consider the role of women in property ownership, including inheritance and property rights. The interlocutor (whose name I didn’t catch, alas) references the participation of women in the recent street protests in Iran – they’ve got more at stake and less to lose than the men do.
DeSoto argues that it’s easier to grant property rights than we think. You’re giving poor people what they’ve already got – “Law is already there in a semotic stage.” He tells a story of visiting with the Indonesian government after spending a vacation in Bali. The government asked him, “How do we find out who owns what? We want to avoid another revolution.” DeSoto’s advice – take a walk. Every two hundred yards or so, a different dog barks. “There may be no records, but the Indonesian dogs know where the borders are.”
We might also look towards models that have worked before. In Colorado, in days past, if you cut down enough trees, you’d have a legal claim to the land. DeSoto tells us, “There’s practice, then you codify it.”