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To close the gap in women’s land rights, we need to do a better job of measuring it

M. Mercedes Stickler's picture
A woman holding her land certificate in rural Zambia. © Jeremy Green
A woman holding her land certificate in rural Zambia. © Jeremy Green

There is broad global agreement that secure property rights help eradicate poverty and that securing women’s land rights reduces gender inequality. But our understanding remains strikingly limited when it comes to the extent to which women’s land rights are – or are not – secure and the impact of women’s tenure security (or lack thereof) on women’s empowerment.

This is true even in Africa, where the most studies have been published, due to shortcomings in both the quality and quantity of research on these questions.

How to capture public life in public spaces?

Fen Wei's picture
Photo credit: Lois Goh/ World Bank
Urbanization and economic growth go hand in hand.  Cities are turning into centers of attraction in developing countries and their population is rising constantly. In such cities, we often see in a city a mix of old and new, slow and fast: Street vendors hawking their wares by luxury shopping malls; highways segmentizing parks and walkways; high-rise crowding out traditional neighborhoods, etc. However, we do not often see a well-balanced mix that serves all urban dwellers with a wide array of needs, economically and socially.
What are the ingredients of a good urban life, or rather, what does it take for a city to make the public happy? The answer to this is multifaceted. Cities need to be accessible, vibrant, and create safe public spaces to meet public needs.
As UN-Habitat’s Charter of Public Space states, public spaces are a key element of individual and social well-being, the places of a community’s collective life, particularly in situations of poverty and limited public resources, such as those in the developing countries. The Charter also highlights that participation of citizens and in particular of communities of residents is of crucial importance for the maintenance and management of public spaces. While there might be no objection to this statement, it is also true that it has been easily overlooked, especially in developing countries, for the sake of “economic efficiency.”

Twelve big moments of building sustainable cities and communities

Andy Shuai Liu's picture

[Put together the puzzle pieces to reveal the picture. Scroll down to #9 for hints.]

If the world in 2017 were a jigsaw puzzle, what memorable pieces would you choose to make up the big picture?
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria that pounded coastal United States and the Caribbean; the severe drought that struck Somalia; forest fires that are ravaging through southern California… Hard to miss were the natural disasters that displaced – even killed – individuals and families.
There were also the “manmade” disasters – conflicts that erupted or lasted in many parts of the world continued to force men, women, and children out of their homes and homelands.
Yet, turning to the bright side, the world has come a long way this year in addressing these challenges to boost inclusive and sustainable growth.

Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, global and local leaders gathered at the One Planet Summit in Paris to firm up their commitment – and ramp up action – to maximize climate finance for a low-carbon, disaster-resilient future.
At the World Bank, our teams working on social development, urban development, disaster risk management, and land issues have endeavored with countries and cities worldwide throughout the year to achieve a common goal: building inclusive, resilient, and sustainable cities and communities for all.
How did they do? From our “Sustainable Communities” newsletter, we have captured 12 moments that mark the major accomplishments and lessons learned in 2017—and inspire our continued work to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity in 2018:
#1: Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World

Released in February 2017, our report on cities in Africa notes that, to grow economically as they are growing in size, Africa’s cities must open their doors and connect to the world. Improving conditions for people and businesses in African cities is the key to accelerating economic growth, adding jobs, and improving city competitiveness. Two more reports released in 2017 also shined a light on inclusive urban growth in East Asia and the Pacific and in Europe and Central Asia respectively.

Creating “Solid Ground” for gender equality in land access

Jane W. Katz's picture
In Brazil, a woman trained through the School of Women Leaders explains to her neighbors what she has learned. Photo: Maria do Carmo Carvalho / Habitat for Humanity

Despite the fact that women represent about half of the global population, produce the majority of global food supply, and perform 60% to 80% of the agricultural work in developing countries, women own less than 20% of land worldwide.

Written laws often fall short of adequately protecting women’s tenure rights; while in some countries, formal national laws explicitly discriminate against women. In post-disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction, women face particular hurdles to secure tenure and shelter. Even in areas with strong protections of equality and non-discrimination, displaced women often struggle to assert their property rights.

On March 8, 2016, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, Habitat for Humanity International launched its first global advocacy campaign, “Solid Ground,” which envisions a world where everyone has access to land for shelter. Promoting gender equality and addressing inequitable or unenforced laws, policies, and customary practices affecting women’s rights to security of tenure and inheritance, has been a primary focus of the campaign.

Now mid-way through the campaign, Solid Ground has grown to include 37 national Habitat for Humanity organizations, 17 partner organizations, an active microsite (and in Spanish,, and has provided direct financial assistance to country programs working on gender and land issues. In its first year, over 1.3 million people are projected to have improved access to land for shelter through the Solid Ground campaign with a goal of reaching 10 million people, especially women.

Through a variety of efforts to build capacity, mobilize allies, influence policymakers, and work together with our partners, we are seeing signs of progress being made to achieve successful outcomes in helping facilitate women’s land ownership and empowering women to understand and achieve their rights. A sampling of some strategies, cases, and upcoming plans are highlighted below. 

Reversing the geospatial digital divide – one step, or leap, at a time

Anna Wellenstein's picture
Earth from space. Photo by NASA.

Global positioning systems (GPS), real time traffic maps, accurate weather forecasts, Uber, self-driving cars… Geospatial data is on full display 24/7 throughout the world these days.  It’s like nothing we have seen before. But none of this would be possible without the underpinning role of the government.

“Geospatial,” or location-based data has existed for hundreds of years – for example, in street and topographical maps. What’s different is how quickly new information is being gathered and the more sophisticated analytics that is being applied to it, thanks to technological advances.

What was once information only found in the domain of government, military, and select private sector, even up to the 1980s and 90s, has come into broad use over the last 20 years. With the increase of mobile technology and communications, handheld smart phones have democratized mapping, moving geospatial technology into the hands of every individual.

This summer, some tens of millions of people in the U.S. traveled to see the total solar eclipse, including a co-author of this blog. Not only was the eclipse amazing – but the drive back from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. showed the integration and impact of geospatial information in our daily lives.

Let’s make a deal for resilient cities

Carina Lakovits's picture
Photo credit: humphery /
JIANGXI CHINA-July 1, 2017: In Eastern China, Jiujiang was hit by heavy rain, and many urban areas were flooded. The vehicles were flooded, and the citizens risked their passage on flooded roads.
Photo credit: humphery /
For the first time in history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. Although cities hold the promise of a better future, the reality is that many cities cannot live up to expectations. Too often, cities lack the resources to provide even the most basic services to their inhabitants, and cities all over the world fail to protect their people effectively against the onslaught of natural disasters or climate change.

Much of this has to do with the lack of adequate infrastructure that can defend against the impacts of floods, sea level rise, landslides or earthquakes. Most cities need better flood defenses, better constructed houses, and better land use planning. But even when cities know what it takes to become more resilient, most often they do not have access to the necessary funding to realize this vision.

It is estimated that worldwide, investments of more than $4 trillion per year in urban infrastructure will be needed merely to keep pace with expected economic growth, and an additional $1 trillion will be needed to make this urban infrastructure climate resilient.  It is clear that the public sector alone, including development finance institutions like the World Bank, will not be able to generate these amounts—not by a long stretch.

Natural disasters are in 3D – and the rights that protect against them should be as well

Luis Triveno's picture
Photo credit: studiovin/Shutterstock

The recent series of devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean has reminded the world, once again, that natural disasters are not equal-opportunity destroyers. The economically marginalized and those lacking secure land and property rights are often disproportionately affected for at least three reasons:

  • First, without secure property rights, they typically lack the long-term incentive and access to credit to build safe, resilient houses
  • Second, they can be reluctant to flee their homes to safe areas, fearing they won’t be allowed to return. 
  • Finally, they are less likely to be the recipients of government risk mitigation or recovery efforts.  Government recovery efforts – no matter how well intentioned – rarely reach those most in need.  After the floods and landslides in Nepal in 2011, for example, only 6% of the poorest received government support – compared to almost 90% of the well off.  

The increasing frequency of natural disasters with tragic human consequences should also serve as reminders that resources spent on disaster risk reduction (DRR) are much more effective at saving lives and property loss. Yes, despite substantial evidence that reducing disaster risk is more cost-effective than responding to disasters, expenditures for disaster response and reconstruction exceed spending on disaster risk reduction and preparedness at a rate of about 20 to 1.

To overcome that spending gap will require innovative thinking on a time-tested idea. Governments, the World Bank, and other donors are doing the right thing when trying to devote more resources to disaster risk reduction – and to make land and property rights reforms part of a multi-faceted DRR strategy. In doing so, they would do even better by recognizing that those rights exist in three dimensions, encompassing not just the ground beneath our feet but to the space above (and below) it.

A road by any other name: street naming and property addressing system in Accra, Ghana

Linus Pott's picture
Street names in Accra, Ghana
Street names in Accra, Ghana. Photo credit: Ben Welle/ Flickr CC
When I used to work in Rwanda, I lived on a small street in Kigali. Every time I invited friends over, I would tell them to “walk past the Embassy, look out for the Church, and then continue to the house with the black gate.” The day a street sign was erected on my street was a game changer.
So how do more than two million citizens of Accra navigate the busy city without the help of street names? While some street names are commonly known, most streets do not have any official name, street sign or house number. Instead, people usually refer to palm trees, speed bumps, street vendors, etc.

But, what happens when the palm tree is cut or when the street vendor changes the location?

The absence of street names poses not only challenges for orientation, but also for property tax collection, postal services, emergency services, and the private sector. Especially, new economy companies, such as Amazon or Uber, depend on street addressing systems and are eager to cater to market demands of a growing middle class.

To address these challenges, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), financed by the World Bank’s second Land Administration Project , is implementing a street addressing and property numbering system in Accra. Other Metropolitan areas received funding from other World Bank-funded projects for similar purposes.

Transit-Oriented Development with Chinese Characteristics: localization as the rule rather than the exception

Jasmine Susanna Tillu's picture
China: More Mobility with Fewer Cars through a GEF Grant

Since our days in school, we have often been told to first define our terms before doing anything else. China is a country that does not shy away from acronyms, and “TOD,” or transit-oriented development—a concept that merges land use and transport planning—is one such acronym that has become wildly popular within the field of urban development.
So, recently, when government officials from seven Chinese cities and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development gathered to launch the China Sustainable Cities Integrated Approach Pilot Project on the topic of TOD, it was clear that they all had the same definition of this three-letter acronym.
Or did they?