Catalytic Potential of Land Rights

Consider for a moment the simple bicycle -- even before it had gears and souped-up tires. Who would have thought that what was designed to be a gentleman's plaything would have a wider impact of helping emancipate women or helping improve lives in Africa? But it did.

Now consider a union for street vendors in India, foot powered irrigation pumps for poor farmers in Myanmar, and my own organization's work of providing land rights for the rural poor -- especially women -- in India, China, and Africa, are among the ideals spotlighted this year at the Skoll World Forum.

All sound interesting, maybe even good, but capable of changing history, you might ask? Yes. Like the bicycle. Sweeping change is often sparked by the most unlikely, seemingly small, ideas and items. This week at the Forum, in Oxford, 1,000 people from around the world have been given a sneak peek at the newest of them.

Social entrepreneurs consider the unlikely and change the world. And their ideas aren't just once off blips. They can spark an entirely new way of thinking. Like the Barefoot College, a past Skoll Awardee. Founder Bunker Roy toyed with the problem that had vexed so many before him: how to improve rural village life in permanent ways.

When others trained a village's educated youth, they would pick up with their newfound skills and head to the cities to make their fortune, leaving the village as poor as ever. So Roy trained semi-literate grandmothers in villages across India to maintain and fix solar power grids. Grandmothers stay where their children and grandchildren are. And what they want most of all, no matter where they live, is to see their progeny have a better life.

During this heady week in Oxford, with a lot of talk about the world's problems among some of the most committed social entrepreneurs on the planet, we are reminded how valuable it is to reconsider of how we do what we do, why, and if it can be improved upon. This is the exactly the approach -- logical and persistent -- my organization too to change the lives of women in West Bengal India, where land titles had, by tradition, only included a single line for the name of the landowner. Almost always this has been reserved for the head of household. And almost always this has meant, the man.

And no one gave this much thought.

Until in our research and field work we noticed that women whose names were not on their land title were being evicted when their husbands died or even when there was a quarrel between the wife and husband. Often, in-laws would lay claim to property and show no mercy to the widow or her children, leaving them destitute and homeless.

Research also showed that when women and men were both listed on the title, it increased women's bargaining power in the household. It gave women more power to ensure that the profits from any home business or agriculture work on the plot went towards meeting their children's needs -- ensuring they are well fed and attend school.

So we met with our government partners and presented our radically simple new idea: adding a second line to land titles.

The government issued a revised title format with two equally prominent lines for writing the owners' names. And with this extra line on a patta, we have forever changed these families. Thanks to this extra line on the title, both husband and wife can apply for loans to make improvements to their land or start a small business. They both have security. And their children do too.

Oxford's Armand D'Angour wisely reminded us this week that oftentimes you can create lasting change by doing something small to an existing entity to spark progress. Why? All innovation builds on gains from history. I was reminded this week that history often turns when, away from the camera's eye, a woman uses a bike, a street vendor joins a union, a grandmother learns to fix a solar panel, and a woman gains title to land. History is in motion and I've never been more optimistic.