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United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

The unresolved land reform debate: Beyond state-led or market-led models

Saturnino M. Borras Jr. and Terry McKinley

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
International Poverty Centre (IPC)

November 2006

SARPN acknowledges the UNDP as a source of this document:
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Sharp inequalities in the distribution of land have remained a major cause of extreme poverty in many developing countries. Much of the rural workforce in these countries is landless or near-landless while many small farmers cultivate meagre, marginal plots. How can this persistent problem be addressed?

The historical record shows that neither state-led nor market-led land reform models have been successful in removing these inequities. In response to this problem, this Policy Research Brief draws primarily on a UNDP-ISS supported set of country studies and analytical papers in order to point toward an alternative model of land reform that could both satisfy legitimate and urgent demands for social justice and develop an agrarian system that is economically viable.1

Land reform emerged as a critical issue in many recent UNDP-supported national studies on Economic Policies and Poverty Reduction. These studies sought to determine policies that could generate growth with equity, or .pro-poor growth.. In most countries, a more pro-poor pattern of growth is needed, in addition to a more rapid pace, in order to reach the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG), namely, the halving of extreme income poverty by 2015.

Once these studies accepted the logic of .pro-poor growth., they recognized that in many developing countries this objective could not be achieved without accelerated rural development. And rural development often could not be achieved, it was revealed, without meaningful land reform. Hence, in these countries, land reform could contribute decisively to reaching MDG #1 and, indirectly, to the attainment of other MDGs.

One clear result of the UNDP-ISS country studies is that severe inequality in land distribution is a basic issue of social injustice. Hence, using just an economic calculus of the benefits and costs of land reform is not sufficient. Land reform is also inevitably controversial. That is why many poverty reduction specialists are reluctant to address it. The reason: such reform invariably alters the distribution of economic power in a country and, by implication, the distribution of political power.

  1. The International Poverty Centre and the Poverty Group in New York coordinated with the Institute for Social Studies in The Hague, beginning in 2004, on a global project that has produced a landmark volume of country studies and analytical papers on .Land Policies, Poverty and Public Action., soon to be published as a book (Akram-Lodhi, Borras and Kay (forthcoming)). This Policy Research Brief is based on that policy-oriented research.

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