Lack of funding may derail implementation of Sierra Leone’s progressive land policy

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One of the abiding criticisms of governance reform in Sierra Leone has been the abysmal implementation record of transformational instruments like new or improved laws and policies. This is partly due, some say, to the absence of thoughtful, costed and well laid out implementation plans.

The land reform project seems intent to buck that trend however as it has, with support from partners such as the United Nations Development Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, set out a 10 year policy implementation plan estimated to cost some Le 434 billion ($69 million). On an annual basis, according to the plan, the Ministry of lands would require about Le 43 billion ($6.9 million) to bring the land policy to life. This is nearly fifteen times more than the 2016 budget allocation, assuming that entire amount was devoted to policy implementation.  Implementation should begin on 1 July 2016- or maybe not.  There is every indication that the start date would be missed because of unavailability of resources.

Land is the country’s single, most valuable economic asset and going by the current iteration of Sierra Leone’s poverty reduction strategy, the pass to middle income status. It is Sierra Leone’s get-out-of-poverty card.

The land sector though is one of the most shambolic. The policy describes it as “chaotic” and “increasingly unsustainable”. Land use, acquisition, administration, planning, conservation and dispute resolution across the formal and customary systems suffer from profound capacity, corruption and efficiency challenges. The policy, to a great extent prescribes the antidote to these maladies but like in medicine, inadequate application of an antidote could worsen the illness. It strengthens women’s access to and control over land, creates a framework for responsible large-scale land investments and introduces a nation-wide title registration system. The land policy must be fully implemented and in a timely manner. Anything less would be a disaster.

Government’s paltry budget allocation signals that the country’s land reform may be in danger of unravelling even before it actually starts. Holistic land reform, like the one envisaged in Sierra Leone, has always been both long term and resource intensive, but in many cases grossly under-funded. For example, Mainland Tanzania started land reforms in 1999 but the process, which is still ongoing, has been held back by lack of resources and coordination.  It was not until 2005 that a 10 year strategic implementation plan was completed, valued at US$300 million. By 2012, three years before the plan expired, only about 17% of the planned resources had been actually provided and government’s contribution was very negligible. Less than half of about 11,000 Tanzanian villages have so far received a Village Land Certificate, one of the major deliverables of that country’s land reform.

If land is the driver of economic development, the silver bullet to the country’s poverty problem, then government must prioritise land reform implementation in word and deed. It must literally put its money where its mouth is and take financial responsibility for a sizeable chunk of the resources needed- at least between 40-50%. Support from development partners, local partnerships and a participatory approach to implementation could account for the rest.

Development partners like the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, are already considering various types of implementation intervention. It is important that they follow script and work with the plan already laid out. Further, they need to properly coordinate to prevent over-crowding and should have a long term view of their involvement rather than a short-term, project approach.

Over the years, civil society organisations have been instrumental in reaching and providing services to the wider population, often in areas where government’s footprint is light. They have helped to hold government institutions accountable and positively influence law and governance reforms.  They will be crucial in creating public awareness of and generating interest in land reform implementation, particularly among the rural population. For example, Namati is piloting a community mapping and governance tool which could be useful when undertaking land titling in rural communities. It is imperative therefore that government forges a long term partnership with relevant civil society groups for effective implementation of the land policy.

Finally, a top-down approach to implementation would be as bad, if not worse than a lack of resources. Without true grassroots ownership of the process, current land reform would become an academic exercise. A genuinely participatory approach to implementation would not only show compliance with rights obligations and best practice, it could reduce cost, instill confidence in, and expedite, the implementation process. Training community members as para-surveyors for instance, could leapfrog the country-wide mapping many years. They could achieve more than an army of centrally recruited and controlled surveyors.

 

Understandably, in the aftermath of the Ebola crisis, the economy has suffered contractions and public resources have come under severe stress. However, given the importance of the land to the country’s development, public financing for land policy implementation should be a priority. After many decades of bemoaning the miserable state of the country’s land sector, we now have an opportunity and a plan to change things- we should make both count.