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Nirj Deva is Conservative MEP for South East England and Vice-President of the European Parliament’s Development Committee. His report can be read here.

In times of austerity, it is understandable that people question whether we should be ‘sending’ so much money to other countries in aid. Unfortunately, for every story of waste and corruption splashed across our newspapers, there are thousands of examples where aid spending is helping to feed people, treating life-threatening illness or providing clean water and education.

However, it is clear that we need to restore confidence in the way we deliver aid. I believe that needs a reappraisal in our approach to development policy to help many poorer nations to help themselves: through the development of property rights. This is a revolutionary idea in the world of “Aid Land”.

Around the world 1.2 billion people live without permanent homes, land access or property rights. Over nine trillion US dollars of wealth is either unregistered or extra-legal: 93 times the total sum of aid given to developing countries in the past 30 years.

Across the Western world, our economies are built on small businesses: entrepreneurs who literally bet the house on a good idea, and who have such a stake in its success that they will work all the hours God sends to make it a success. Our wealth is stored in our properties backed by legal title.

However, in much of the developing world, people may ‘own’ their property but they have no legal deeds, no survey delineating their land, and no legal and financial system in place to borrow against their capital. People’s homes are mere bricks and mortar, rather than a security that can unlock finance. Money can be raised through Western micro finance facilities which are often excellent, but cannot provide the sheer scale of investment required and charge high interest rates to compensate for the lack of security to back up the loan.

In other parts of Africa, land is owned by Chiefs, the government or communes. As a result, people do not feel they have a stake in their country, and so their unwillingness to participate as citizens leaves nations susceptible to corruption.

So, what can we do about it? The EU is the largest aid donor on the planet and as vice-president of the European Parliament’s Development committee I work to ensure that success is not just measured in taxpayer euros spent, but in blankets handed out, vaccinations given, and children provided a basic education. However, I also believe that we must look to more long term objectives that will engender a culture of property rights in Africa.

We can help by using satellite technology to survey land; we can train land surveyors and land managers; we can introduce processes and a legal framework for registering land. Creating a contractual regime for property ownership will not solve the problem overnight, but it will be the first stage towards giving people a stake in their country, in encouraging entrepreneurs to take chances necessary to grow economies and create jobs.

In the European Parliament, MEPs have adopted a report that I drafted calling for a shift in EU development policy towards creating property rights. Rather than giving a man a fish, we can not only teach him to fish, but also enable him to borrow against his land and buy a bigger rod.

As the debate rages on the future of aid to poorer countries, it is time for the emphasis to change to create a means for poorer countries to move themselves towards a better future.

Property rights are responsible for turning the USA from a barren land to an engine of opportunity; and they are responsible for much of the rise of Asia. There is substantial wealth in Africa. We just need to put in place the legislation to unlock it.

11 comments for: Nirj Deva MEP: Property rights should be at the centre of aid policy

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