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Knowledge/Power/Land: A Critical Review of the Land Governance Orthodoxy

Laura German

University of Georgia, USA

In the 12 years since the global financial crisis, there has been a marked shift from the highly polarized debate surrounding “land grabs” to the emergence of “land governance” as a prominent object of international development discourse, multi-stakeholder collaboration, knowledge production, and funding. With significant buy-in from previously antagonistic actors to its core concepts, premises, and interventions, it is important to take stock of this shift and what it means. This paper draws on theoretical insights on the relationship between knowledge and power to critically evaluate the theory of change behind the emergent land governance orthodoxy. It takes women’s land rights and collective titling as key cases for analysis, laying out the theory of change from international policy discourses and contrasting key premises therein with evidence from the peer-reviewed literature. A deep reading of the published evidence, much of it ethnographic in nature, reveals abundant evidence to question the premises behind established theories of change. The paper explores this evidence for the two case studies of interest and closes with a reflection on what the observed disconnect between the theories guiding intervention and the empirical evidence might mean.

Connaissances / pouvoir / terre: un examen critique de l'orthodoxie de la gouvernance foncière

Laura German

Université de Géorgie, États-Unis

Au cours des 12 années qui se sont écoulées depuis la crise financière mondiale, il y a eu un changement marqué du débat hautement polarisé entourant les «accaparements de terres» à l’émergence de la «gouvernance foncière» en tant qu’objet majeur du discours sur le développement international, la collaboration multipartite et la production de connaissances. et financement. Avec l’adhésion significative d’acteurs antagonistes antérieurs à ses concepts, prémisses et interventions de base, il est important de faire le bilan de ce changement et de ce qu’il signifie. Cet article s’appuie sur des perspectives théoriques sur la relation entre les connaissances et le pouvoir pour évaluer de manière critique la théorie du changement derrière l’orthodoxie émergente de la gouvernance foncière. Il prend les droits fonciers des femmes et les titres collectifs comme des cas clés pour l’analyse, exposant la théorie du changement à partir des discours politiques internationaux et contrastant les prémisses clés avec les preuves de la littérature évaluée par les pairs. Une lecture approfondie des preuves publiées, en grande partie de nature ethnographique, révèle d’abondantes preuves pour remettre en question les prémisses derrière les théories établies du changement. L’article explore ces preuves pour les deux études de cas d’intérêt et se termine par une réflexion sur ce que le décalage observé entre les théories guidant l’intervention et les preuves empiriques pourrait signifier.


5 Responses

  1. This very informative Laura.

    You mention the ‘Emancipatory Discourse’ on gender. Do you have examples of studies on gender which have tried to understand the local gender priorities instead of being externally driven?

    1. Great question, Everisto. A few years back I did a fairly systematic review of the literature on tenure relations and titling from a gendered perspective, and I honestly found very little in terms of women’s own voices. There is a tendency to speak FOR women, more often than not filtering and interpreting their realities through our own concepts and ideologies (and packaging them as homogenized discourses of “women” in the abstract), or to hand-pick narratives that support pre-existing ideological commitments. So my recent writing on the matter – which draws heavily on the discourses and writings of others rather than primary data – does little to profile those voices and realities, and more to critically interrogate the stories that are told about women within the development community and even within academic scholarship on the subject of “women’s land rights”.

      1. I should qualify this by saying much of the above pertains to writings on women’s land rights from within the development community. Academic writings tend to focus on characterizing the current situation (in dialogue with women), but from what I recall, few delve into women’s priorities or aspirations in terms of land tenure and use.

  2. Good presentation. For communities facing such challenges, are there options you suggest they should consider, examples to look at?

  3. Thanks for the question. I spent some time recently looking for inspiration on alternative futures for land as framed by those involved in grassroots struggles themselves, and found a few relevant conversations. One surrounds the struggle for Indigenous rights and its concrete manifestations at the national level. Canada is one place where it is possible to find this story told through the lens of Indigenous professionals and intellectuals themselves (see, e.g. “UNDRIP Implementation: More Reflections on the Braiding of International, Domestic and Indigenous Laws, and the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples”). Another set of conversations in which local aspirations surrounding land and political life are brought to the fore are laid out in a set of journal articles profiling traditions of radical democracy within subaltern social movements. Yet these are both visions and democratic traditions rooted in other continents, and anchored in part in the notion of Indigeneity. This makes it important to heed the warnings of Kojo Amanor and Issa Shivji in Friday’s webinar on the limitations of the concept of Indigeneity and movements framed around collective self-determination for the African context. Yet features of political processes being forged in other continents (such as radical pluralism, deeply deliberative process, staunch resistance to efforts to forge a unified philosophy or political project) do resonate with the views articulated by Friday’s panelists and other African intellectuals. Other sources might include La Via Campesina (and its call for food sovereignty), and farmers’ organizations with strong ties to family farming. But there is an inherent challenge to capturing these voices in textual forms. Here, I think the call for a pan-African intellectual community forged in articulation with ongoing struggles for land, livelihoods and voice across the continent, in which researchers practice the art of “listening deeply” while trying to bracket out their/our own ideological and theoretical commitments, is key.

    But I also think it is important to re-frame the question. If the roots of the problem lie within global sites of knowledge production that are not just forged in association with, but also help to constitute and legitimate, the global political economic order (not to mention the common alignment of local and national elites with this order), is it realistic to assume this struggle will be fought effectively at “community” level? Perhaps the idea of a pan-African intellectual community forged in close articulation with the grassroots can help here, too.

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