Alleviating Poverty in the Developing World—Leveraging Property Rights with Geospatial Technology

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According to renowned economist Hernando de Soto, the inability of persons worldwide to gain formal recognition of their real property rights is a major stumbling block to alleviating poverty. This lack of formal legal recognition of property rights is pronounced in situations where rights are considered outside of the statutory legal system—­that is, they are based on customary or indigenous forms of land tenure. From a purely economic perspective, this lack of recognition of formal rights to property represents "trapped" capital that could be accessed to stimulate the local financial markets with microfinance loans and possibly mortgages. It also represents the "trapping" of other forms of capital as well such as human, legal and social. As a result, people in poverty often live outside of the formal economy.

However, "untapping" this hidden capital requires formal recognition of the property rights of those in poverty. Despite these apparent benefits, access to standard forms of land titling and registration are out of reach for most in poverty. The process itself is usually too expensive, complicated and rife with rent-seeking. Even in those locations where formal land titling is fairly effective—­it often does not adjust itself to truly serve those at the bottom of the pyramid.

Former First American President Craig DeRoy formed a new company called Corporate Initiatives Development Group (CIDG) and continued a commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) for a pilot project based in Ashaiman, Ghana focused on improving property rights to those in poverty. To make the pilot project a reality, CIDG assembled a team consisting of International Land Systems (ILS) Inc., Opportunity International, Trimble Navigation, and ESRI. This team was chosen because of the expertise in GIS, GPS and specialized land administration systems, particularly their use in emerging economies. The team put together a business -driven approach that provides for a sustainable and scalable approach to formalization of land rights in Ghana, utilizing the distribution network of microfinance lenders with an innovative GIS and GPS-based paralegal property rights formalization process to significantly reduce the time and cost involved in collecting and documenting property rights information.

The Ashaiman pilot has been conducted with the approval and interest of the Ghana Ministry of Lands that understands the benefits of having an easy-to-use, low cost, automated paralegal land titling system. Ashaiman is one of the poorest sections of Accra, the capital city, and home to approximately 400,000 people in a 40-square kilometer region where many live in poverty with poor housing and basic municipal infrastructure. As part of our Ashaiman pilot, the team focused on existing clients of Opportunity International, particularly those operating private schools. With 51 private schools in the pilot area, the paralegal property adjudication process evolved quickly as the loan officers became comfortable with the team’s methodology. Printed lists of questions were used during interviews with the school owners. Neighbors were also interviewed, and unless boundary disputes arose, occupation was usually confirmed fairly quickly. Loan officers also collected copies of any paper documents that helped support the ownership claim.

A Trimble GeoXH, a GPS-based mobile GIS data collection device, was used to collect spatial location as well as other physical attributes. Digital photographs of the property and a digital video of the interview with the owner(s) were taken with devices linked to the mobile GPS unit. Both OmniSTAR and the wide area augmentation system (WAAS) differential correction systems were used to achieve real-time GPS coordinate accuracy of 2.5 to 0.85 meters.

Loan officers then delivered the hard-copy and digital documents to the project headquarters where they were entered into the ILS Open Title solution, which handled the scanning, organizing, archiving, and retrieval of all collected information. Open Title is used, as it is a low-cost, integrated off-the-shelf software tool that manages digital text, photographic, video, and geospatial data generate property rights certificates.

Survey crews were then dispatched to those school properties Once the paralegal documentation was collected, survey crews were sent to the school locations where they surveyed general boundaries using a mix of total stations and GPS. This was done as ILS’s senior cadastral expert Dave Horwood notes, "The property surveys have to fit accurately into the established land cadastre, or they risk being rejected by the government. One of the easiest ways for a cadastral survey to go awry in a project like this is for participants to fail to maintain uniformity among the map datums used in the various cadastral layers." Accra presents a challenging situation because at least three datum grids have been established, the most widely used of which is the Accra Datum.

In conducting the first few general boundary surveys, survey teams used Trimble GeoExplorer ProXH devices. One was set up as a differential correction base station on a known Accra Datum control point, and the other was used as the rover. Using this configuration, school property boundaries were completed with centimeter accuracy.

To achieve a higher level of accuracy, eliminate datum uncertainty, and test different costs and times involved, ILS installed a Trimble NetR5 GPS base station, donated by Trimble Navigation, at the project headquarters for use in completing the remainder of the property surveys. The handheld Trimble mobile GIS devices then achieved real-time survey-grade accuracy in the two- to five-centimeter range from the high-quality RTK (NetR5) base station. The accuracy provided by this base station satisfies the survey requirements of the Ghana Ministry of Lands.

The pilot project, completed in 2009, has proved that sustainable geospatial-based technology can be used to develop a practical, commercially viable means of formalizing the land registration process for the poor. This new model combines geospatial technology and an innovative paralegal registration process to develop a land titling process and GIS-based land records system that automates much of the work involved in collecting property ownership information, creating low-cost and timely property descriptions and surveying of parcels. To most efficiently and responsibly identify and reach the poor in need, the pilot program utilizes the distribution network of a microfinance lender as the trusted broker partner. The program bases its unique approach on a foundation of commercial sustainability and scalability, which has been sorely lacking in other land reform projects that are typically highly subsidized.

While the aim of the pilot project was to create a private-sector led approach to the paralegal title process, the team recognized that long term sustainability required a business to be established to provide these services. A new company, Medeem (meaning "in my name" in Twi, one of the languages of Ghana) has been formed. Medeem will continue to take forward this unique approach to the formalization of property rights to those in poverty, and expand on the successful pilot program.

This success can be encapsulated in the story of Ms. Adamah, one of the first recipients of this paralegal process. Ms. Adamah is the owner of the Providence Educational Complex, which was one of the first schools in the pilot to be reviewed under the paralegal titling process. Looking back on the sequence of events, she believes t
he most significant benefit given to her under this program was the validation that her school property was indeed "in her name." Her legal rights had been privately formalized, and as a result, she had confidence that the school could someday be used as an asset and could be passed on by inheritance to her family. She was visibly moved the day her property was surveyed and she was shown the outline of the school overlaid on a satellite image of Accra. For the first time, she literally saw her place in the world­—and it had an address that reaffirmed her sense of identity.

Peter Rabley is president of International Land Systems, Inc., with more than 20 years’ experience designing and implementing land information systems around the world.

Note: A version of this article first appeared in ESRI’s ArcNews magazine. For more information contact Frank Pichel (fpichel@landsystems). Further reading: "The Power of One," Time, 07/16/07, by Madeleine Albright and Hernando de Soto.

Photo credits: International Land Systems (ILS), Inc and Corporate Initiatives Development Group, LLC.

A 1.358Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE