New technology has unleashed a wave of opportunities to secure formal land rights for hundreds of millions of people, but it is not a solve-all solution in countries with weak institutions, said a senior World Bank economist.
Satellite imagery, drones, cloud computing and blockchain are among technologies with the potential to help many of the world’s more than 1 billion people estimated to lack secure property rights, said the World Bank’s Klaus Deininger.
“With new technologies, we have a lot of opportunities to change the picture quite dramatically,” Deininger said in an interview ahead of the World Bank’s annual conference on land and poverty, which opened in Washington on Monday.
The information collected can be instrumental to helping establish property records and land titling systems in countries where there is no formal ownership or land-use documentation.
Development challenges – from rapid urbanization to climate change, disaster preparedness and social injustice – are closely linked to land and the way it is used, said Deininger, lead economist in the World Bank’s Development Research Group.
“While technology can help, it will not solve every problem if used in isolation. Land rights are complex, so you have to look as issues such as governance and how to build a country’s capacity to deal with the issue,” he said.
Fewer than a third of countries, and only two in Africa (Rwanda and South Africa), maintain land records digitally, according to the World Bank.
Less than half of the world’s countries, and just 13 percent in Africa, have registered or mapped private land in their capital city or beyond its borders, the World Bank said.
Public land is often not registered at all, which poses challenges for cities in raising the taxes needed to provide services for their residents.
That problem will become more acute, as the share of the world’s population living in urban areas is forecast to swell to almost 70 percent by 2050 from just over 50 percent now.
While lack of money and trained staff mean many countries in the developing world are struggling with building effective land registries, a new crop of startups is using mobile phones and drones to help communities to map and record their land.
Satellite imagery at increasingly high resolution and frequency is helping to link tenure to land use and identify gaps in land administration coverage.
Other startups are using blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrency bitcoin, to create digital land registries.
Governments including Honduras, Georgia and Rwanda have signed deals to build blockchain-based land-titling systems, where information is stored in immutable digital registries and cross-checked by a network of computer users.
“Such technology advances are making it possible to comprehensively secure land rights in participatory and cost-effective ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago,” Deininger told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Blockchain, he said, was useful as one of many technology tools.
“But peddling something as a silver bullet when in the end the issues are systemic…is not that helpful,” Deininger said, in reference to growing interest from governments to use blockchain for their land registries.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a 15-year anti-poverty framework adopted in 2015 by 193 countries, are increasing the demand for the data that these new technologies can deliver, Deininger said.
In line with the SDGs, governments are now expected to regularly report on the share of men and women whose land tenure is legally documented and perceived as secure.