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Property rights: so easy an Indonesian dog could do it.

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.”

2 thoughts on “Property rights: so easy an Indonesian dog could do it.”

  1. Diehl Mackey-Pyfer

    I subscribed by accident some time ago. Now I can’t wait to read it. You seem to be at the front of a great wave of intellectual insight into how the world does work and how it could work. What you write is both challenging and inspiring.

  2. Thanks for offering a summary of this discussion, Ethan.

    I wanted to add a couple of points about the nature of property rights (PR) that are often forgotten as de Soto’s model sounds really great and is very intuitive but is in reality overly simplistic.

    In particular, he oversimplifies the informal economy and the related property relations: what can be observed in a specific setting is not necessarily the whole truth. There are often a lot of secondary rights on land (or other resources). That means the land is used by more than one person and for more than one type of use. The case where a squatter family is occupying the same plot for 20 years without a title is not the norm in many situations. Examples of secondary rights are the poor in a village being allowed to fish in the rice paddies during rainy season, or that everyone is allowed to fetch water or collect medicinal plants on someone else’s land.

    What happens when you codify rights? In most cases secondary rights are overlooked or pushed aside by local elites and the ones losing out are the poorest and most marginalized. In many cases women who bear most of the burden to feed their families in many countries are hit hardest. They are forced to go further to fetch water, their access to firewood, wild fruits and medicinal plants is cut, etc. in other words they lose the few rights they enjoyed prior to formalization.

    All PR scholars will agree that rights of local people need to be secured, the point of contention is how to do this and if the concept of private (often individual) PR is the best to fight poverty and protect the poor.

    There is a lot of material discussing which approach to take to secure land rights on http://www.landrightswatch.net/ including more critical material on de Soto’s approach.

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