Land administration and Geospatial information hard talk: Reviewing the posted comments
Coordinates was especially pleased to publish the Hard Talk interview with the expert panel of Dr. Anthony Beck, Mr. Vladimir V. Evtimov and Dr. Keith Clifford Bell in the November 2023 issue. As per our approach, soon after the issue is published, including its posting online as pdf, we also post the individual articles online with the facilities to vote and rate the article from one to five and also to post comments, which are in effect a blog.1 What has followed has been the posting of significant comments, to praise the interview and to also delve further into the issues raised. Overall, the posted comments and reactions from other means, including postings on the social media platform LinkedIn, have been extremely positive and congratulatory. However, they have gone further, expanding on some of the topics raised by the panel and backing up comments with authoritative citations. In effect, this crowdsourcing of opinions has produced a very substantial document. Given the scope and depth of comments, Coordinates felt it would serve the public interest to post a synopsis of the blogger comments and to also seek any reactions from the expert panel. As an aside, and by way of word count, the published interview is around 11,000 words and the posted comments are almost 5,000 words.
What a way to end 2023 with the Hard Talk and then to enter 2024 with a review of the comments! This also ensures that the much-appreciated contributions of commenters are captured in a further issue of Coordinates and shared.
2. The main blog/ comment themes
Frameworks and their mandates
The comments raise questions about the mandates of endorsed frameworks, their respective values and why they have been created and promoted. Three of the frameworks specifically raised in posted comments are the Global Geodetic Reference Framework (GGRF), the Integrated Geospatial Reference Framework (IGIF) and the Framework for Effective Land Administration (FELA). All three are outcomes of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM). The fourth framework raised in the interview, from the World Bank, is the Land Governance Assessment Framework (LGAF). Although not a framework per se, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT) was also considered in comments.
GGRF is fundamental for monitoring changes to the Earth including the continents, ice caps, oceans, sea level and the atmosphere. It is also fundamental for mapping, navigation and universal timing. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, on February 26, 2015, after its 2014 endorsement by UN-GGIM.
On IGIF, it is clear that it is a repackaging of the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) concept and framework. Drilling down, especially into long published US Federal Geographic Data Committee publications on NSDI since the early 1990s, there is no doubt that IGIF has done some thoughtful restructuring of NSDI, but it largely remains the same. Arguably, the nuance of IGIF from NSDI was targeted at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda. It does seem that the promotion of IGIF has been wide at global and regional levels, but uptake has been little. Developed countries seem to have stuck to NSDI/SDI agendas and a relatively small number of developing countries seem to have been exposed to IGIF, largely through donor pushing. As of 2023, it seems that some twenty countries were reported by UN-GGIM to have embarked on IGIF and are at various stages of the initial preparatory work, viz. Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, Dominican Republic, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Fiji, Guatemala, Honduras, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Nepal, Panama, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Saint Lucia, Tonga and Tunisia.2 These are mostly countries dependent on international donor funding for NSDI development. So, as reported in the interview it is consistent with supply-driven rather than country needs in order to secure investment funds.
We should also not forget that IGIF was the renamed Overarching Framework for Geospatial Information which was conceived by the World Bank with support from FAO and its consultant team, with piloting in Guyana and presented to UNGGIM by the World Bank and adopted as IGIF. The Guyana IGIF experiences have had mixed success given reported governance issues and it seems is no longer mentioned since the controversial departure of the former Commissioner and Chief Executive Officer of the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission, who represented Guyana on UN-GGIM.3
Coordinates notes the experiences of two of the panelists in pursuing rapid NSDI assessment rather than IGIF. Nonetheless, IGIF may provide a useful reference to consider when designing NSDI investments, and that would also seem to be a consensus of the interview panel.
Regarding FELA, it is clear from the posted comments, that land administration does not fall within the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) mandate for UN-GGIM. Furthermore, the composition of UN-GGIM members is largely geospatial rather than land administration.
Although not raised by the bloggers or by the panel, it is noted under the United Nations Statistics Division (SD), and its parent the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), there have been established two global centres concerned with promotion of two of the frameworks:
• United Nations Global Geodetic Centre of Excellence in Bonn Germany – which is concerned with GGRF.
• United Nations Global Geospatial Knowledge and Innovation Centre (UN-GGKIC), Statistics Division (SD), Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), based in Deqing, China – which is concerned with IGIF.
For sure, we all look forward to hearing of the progress of these centres. But will these centres make any real difference?
On LGAF, it is understood it was implemented, or rather assessments were undertaken in around 40 countries. Whilst some countries and sub-national LGAFs have provided useful information, it is unclear as to whether there has been much impact on investment in land administration reform arising from LGAF. Further, LGAF does seem to have all but fallen off the radar now. Nonetheless, and again the consensus of the interview panel, the respective LGAF modules do provide useful checklists for consideration in land administration system design.
It is also worth briefly mentioning the Land Administration Domain Model (LADM) which is currently under review since its formalization by the International Standards Organization (ISO) in 2012. LADM did go through quite an exhaustive process of development and consultation over several years before its approval by ISO. So, this is yet another framework that has gone through a different process. It is claimed that around forty socalled LADM ‘country profiles’ have been created. However, it is unclear how many of these profiles have been endorsed by the official land agencies in the respective land administration ecosystem and are operational.4
The VGGT is worthwhile mentioning as an exemplary set of internationally recognised principles that form an international “soft law”, even though it is not a framework per se. The so-called “soft law”5 is an integral part of the international legal system that is often generated through formal UN bodies, like CFS. The VGGT – often in tandem with the regional Framework and Guidelines on Land Policy in Africa6 by the Consortium of the African Union, the UN Economic Commission for Africa, and the African Development Bank – proved helpful to inspire good practices and directly influence land tenure governance and land administration, and to serve as a baseline for further policy discourses, – notably on water tenure governance and administration7 , which was skipped out in the VGGT process. The CFS and FAO report on the VGGT uptake that “VGGT has been very influential as a progressive land tenure standard that influenced policy making in more than 20 countries (examples of uptake: Awareness raising and capacity development on the VGGT in 78 countries; Land policies and programmes based on the VGGT elaborated in 34 countries; Land laws and policies based on the VGGT enacted in 9 countries)”.8
Panel Conclusions: There is no doubt that GGRF is a very important framework to support global change monitoring. Regarding IGIF and FELA, such frameworks would seem to provide useful information, but they are quite timeconsuming and expensive to implement. From the reports from UN-GGIM, framework progress over the past few years has been slow and would seem to be at the preparatory stages. More rapid and cost-effective approaches are required. Importantly, demand should be driven by the countries themselves rather than imposed by donors as conditional of investment support. Similarly, for LADM and LGAF, both have demonstrated their capacity to provide useful information and referencing. On LADM, the creation of a country profile should not be taken as meaning implementation. Regarding VGGT, it is very apparent that VGGT efforts have been appropriately directed at awareness raising, policy and programme development and capacity building.
Endorsement of the frameworks is paramount to the legitimacy of the frameworks. Only VGGT and GGRF have been endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. United Nations mandates are very important, and any endorsements do follow the highest-level processes. Mr. Evtimov has explained the process very clearly in his own posted response to the blog comments where he provided considerable detail of the processes of UN endorsement of both VGGT and also GGRF:
“To sum up this comment: being UNGGIM endorsed does not make a document UN endorsed. It would need to follow a similar process to what took place with GGRF and VGGT. The process is extensive and requires high-level decision making from the highest level of UN member state representatives.”
Coordinates commends Mr. Evtimov’s posted response as an invaluable reference, especially given he is an FAO expert.
Neither IGIF nor FELA have been endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly for endorsement and remain as UN-GGIM outcomes, that is, approved by UN-GGIM. The difference in rigor and importance of these endorsements is significant. However, it is unfortunate that UN SD, DESA and UN-GGIM have wrongly reported that IGIF and FELA are UN endorsed. For example, in the November 2023 recruitment of positions for UN-GGKIC, these agencies have advised that:
“… The Centre’s overarching goal is to work towards the ambitions of implementation of the United Nations Integrated Geospatial Information Framework (UN-IGIF) set by Member States, to develop capacity, promote and support the required innovation, leadership, coordination and standards to develop, strengthen, integrate and deliver national geospatial information policy, data, systems, tools, services and capabilities into their national government development policies, strategies and arrangements.”
So clearly, it is these agencies which have incorrectly reported on the endorsement of IGIF, and this may also have occurred with FELA.
Panel Conclusions: The broader community may not understand the differences between the official UN General Assembly endorsement from an agreement reached by a designated expert committee such as UN-GGIM. It would be appropriate for DESA, UN SD and UN-GGIM to correct any misreporting of framework endorsement.
The term “vested interests” arose in the comments. The nature of any vested interest in the thematic areas of land administration and geospatial information is varied. Vested interests could be of a research nature or in the public interest including safety and welfare, disaster resilience, conflict resolution and reduction. A bilateral donor’s foreign policy may include support for another country through financial support for housing and land, infrastructure, mapping and so forth. A multilateral may wish to engage in specific country sectors as it has inherent advantages over other multilaterals and bilaterals. So, in both such cases they could be considered vested interests. Civil society organizations (CSO) may also engage and advocate reforms they feel strongly about, such as the land rights of Indigenous Peoples. Again, such activities should be considered as vested interests. Academics may pursue research interests and collaborate with donors, CSO and vendors. On the other hand, there are organizations who may promote land administration or geospatial information agendas in accordance with their business organizational objectives and mandates.
Panel Conclusions: The Interview Panel has not interpreted any posted comments raising vested interests as implying corruption. Having said that, lobbying and advocacy should see anyone undertaking such activities declare their interests transparently, especially when working with public funds and alongside those working in the public interest.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), of which there were eight, were deemed to be aspirational and had no targets. The SDGs were a much-considered new approach with 17 goals and 169 targets determined from baselines. The intention of the SDGs was to be better than MDGs, to be more than just aspirational. Now, we see our world leaders also referring to the SDGs as aspirational and some even as inspirational – and that was clear from the recently concluded COP28 – the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC held, November 30 to December 12 in Dubai.
UN DESA has advised that:
“The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.
The SDGs build on decades of work by countries and the UN, including the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.”.9
The widely recognized failure of the SDGs is in no doubt and both the interview and comments raised the grave concerns of the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Guterres himself in the July 2023 SDG report published by UN DESA:
“Halfway to the deadline for the 2030 Agenda, the SDG Progress Report; Special Edition shows we are leaving more than half the world behind. Progress on more than 50 percent of targets of the SDGs is weak and insufficient; on 30 percent, it has stalled or gone into reverse. These include key targets on poverty, hunger and climate. Unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda could become an epitaph for a world that might have been.” 10
But, less than one month later, at the Thirteenth session of UN-GGIM, August 2-4, 2023, it was reported:
“The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution 2022/24, adopted on 22 July 2022, reiterated the importance of strengthening and enhancing the effectiveness of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management particularly for the achievement of its operations focused on the Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations Integrated Geospatial Information Framework, to strengthen and ensure its continued effectiveness and benefits to all Member States. The thirteenth session of the Committee of Experts focused on the urgent needs to enhance national geospatial information management to support accelerated achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals, leveraging the Committee’s adopted norms, frameworks, principles and guides as strategies and mechanisms to develop, integrate, strengthen and maximize geospatial information management and related resources and leadership in all countries.” 11
It is extraordinary that UN-GGIM would be issuing statements about supporting the acceleration of achieving SDGs which leverage of amongst other things the frameworks. The midpoint of SDGs is now passed, and they are all definitely failing. Both bloggers and the panel would seem to agree that geospatial information can support the monitoring of SDGs – but geospatial information cannot accelerate the achievement of SDGs. Furthermore, in terms of the frameworks, especially IGIF and FELA, progress is very limited to the early preparatory stages and only in a small number of countries. Sadly, the UN institutions have failed to heed the early advice of the Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston – whose advice if taken on board, may have enabled a timely course correction by restructuring of the SDG goals and targets and revisiting of baselines. 12
In the UN News article published July 17, 2023, the UN warns the world is “woefully off track” to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 2030 deadline.13
Seriously, something is very wrong and that has come through profoundly in the blog comments. Ironically, as aforementioned, we read the UN-GGIM’s Resolution from its most recent global forum of August 2023 continuing to advise that it is working on the accelerated achievement of SDGs through its frameworks and maximizing geospatial information management. This just doesn’t make any sense. At least one blogger even proposed there should be an official investigation.
Panel Conclusions: In spite of significant investment, it does seem that many of the SDGs were poorly formulated, both in terms of baselines and targets. The warnings and recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur Alston were ignored by the responsible UN agencies. The repeated rhetoric over the past several years concerning accelerating or improving achievement of the SDGs through geospatial information is not working. With less than seven years left, it may be all too late. So, will the UN and international community learn from the mistakes of the SDGs to design what will follow 2030?
Hypes and myths
Stakeholders hold key UN bodies, multilaterals such as the World Bank, the major bilaterals, professional bodies such as the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) and key CSOs in the highest esteem and will regularly cite statements from such bodies as being authoritative. However, through this Hard Talk, we have clearly established, beyond any doubt, that there seem to be many examples of institutions, publishing misleading information of which at times they may not be aware. For example, Doing Business, through the World Bank’s own independent investigation by law firm Willmer Hale in 2021 found data irregularities and unethical conduct by Bank officials in the preparation of Doing Business, across many of its indicators.
Similarly, Coordinates notes that the Zombie myth, that 70 percent of land parcels in the world are not titled, or one of its many variants is often attributed to major institutions including the World Bank, albeit because officials from such institutions, or their consultants, or associated research partners cite it repeatedly. Hard Talk has established that there is no substance to this statistic, or other variants. Responsible international development and also research on land administration should avoid the family of Zombie myths and call them out when so-called experts present them. FAO with partners initiated the setup of a global land observatory, and periodic publication of a global land report that would hopefully establish a sound baseline and monitoring mechanism for the state of the land sector.
Although not raised in the interview, the panel has alerted Coordinates to other theories such as those of Hernando de Soto in his bestseller The Mystery of Capital which attributes the failure of capitalism in the Third World to the lack of property titles. De Soto was very influential over the World Bank and even lobbying US President Clinton. His theories are often discredited or refuted by land economists. Perhaps this is a topic for a deep dive in a future issue of Coordinates.
In the blog comments, one of the panel has responded by recommending two interesting books, for those engaged in international development:
• Catherine Caulfield, 1996, “Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations”.
• William Easterly, 2014, “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor”. Caulfield and Easterly are eminent researchers and authors, with Easterly being a former economist and senior adviser at the World Bank.
Panel Conclusions: It is very important to check the validity of sources, rather than just re-cycle them. Some of the myths emanate from weakly-founded research, or poorly developed assumptions. At times deductions are also drawn from correlation rather than proof of causality. Eminent agencies do make mistakes in research.
Impacts of Misguided International Agency Interventions
Panelist Dr. Bell raised the experiences of major project failures in Afghanistan, all largely due to a single donor failing to design and supervise the investments, viz. two land administration projects and a CORS network. Three commenters specifically agreed with Dr. Bell’s reporting of those failures. The donor failed to appreciate the institutional arrangements that had existed prior to 2013, where there were multiple land-related agencies and also the legal framework was grossly deficient. A further issue raised by commenters on the failed Afghanistan experiences concerned land-related studies undertaken by internationals agencies which failed to understand the history and resulted in causing tension and conflict between tribal and ethnic groups. Such failures are not unique to Afghanistan.
Panel Conclusion: International development interventions, both investments projects and studies, should always take into account the social, cultural and historical contexts of the country and also be cognizant of the political economy to avoid the risks of doing harm.
3. Last Words from the panel
Anthony Beck: I am grateful for being included in the panel – this has been a wonderful opportunity and I have learnt much in the process. Thanks to Coordinates, Keith and Vladimir. My contribution has been mainly focused on digital transformation and LADM. The frameworks provide pathways to support digital transformation. However, there is the danger that implementation occurs in a vacuum following a utopian, or happy, path. Land matters are complex and can become emotive, there is no one-size-fits-all-approach. The legal, social, economic, political and operational contexts profoundly influence implementation and change. Inevitably there will be competing agendas and different power relationships between stakeholders. These can lead to less-than-ideal outcomes. Guidance should not become dogma: what works in one context may not work in another. Hence, there is a need to be critical to develop strategies and approaches that deliver an inclusive and, dare I say it, “fit-for- purpose” outcome. To do this we must challenge ways of working and of perceived wisdom. The online debate fits in to this category. This is a good thing.
Vladimir Evtimov: The interview and the blog comments have been a very encouraging and rewarding experience for me. Thanks to Coordinates and the comments authors for the constructive approach and positive attitude. I would plead Coordinates to keep on organizing and publishing similar interviews and believe that some strategic topics have already popped up, like the global land observatory and a periodic global land report; integration of land and water tenure governance; global centres of excellence and wider capacity building on the importance of the land and geospatial sector for sustainable development and social, economic and environmental resilience; addressing housing, land and property rights issues for building back better during post-disaster or post-violent conflict situations, and others. Once again, my heartfelt gratitude to Coordinates and to Keith and Anthony for the opportunity.
Keith Clifford Bell: Overall, this has been a great experience, and it’s so humbling to be so well received by Coordinates readers, including those who published public comments and also those who reached out offline. The interview enabled me to reconnect with colleagues with whom I have worked in various countries. It was really nice to see a few comments from esteemed colleagues posted in the blog. I am very grateful to Coordinates, which provided me with the opportunity to respond to a very solid set of questions on land administration and geospatial information. Most definitely, I learned a lot from the published interview comments, especially concerning mandates, for example I had thought all the frameworks through UN-GGIM were UN endorsed. Now I know that it is only GGRF. Whilst I have never spoken out on the potential for those with vested interests engaged in international development, I was intrigued to see bloggers raise such concerns. This may give rise to the old idiom “where there is smoke there is fire.” It was great to be on the panel with Vladimir and Anthony. Finally, I do hope that Coordinates will periodically do further Hard Talks with other panels. My encouragement is with the caveat of expert panel composition being objective, enabling “truth to power”.
4. Final thoughts
The interview and the ensuing published comments have shown there is definitely strong demand for candid articles in Coordinates that provide opportunities for public comments from around the globe to be published online. It is clear that leading agencies engaged in land administration and geospatial information may at times diverge and need to be called out. Respectfully, Coordinates appreciates that conferences, workshops and other fora may not be suitable for candor, owing to the agendas of the convening bodies and also sponsors. Also, individual experts and small agencies may lack the financial means to participate in person. Coordinates will consider future Hard Talk opportunities for expert panels enabling public comment. Stay tuned!
4https://ggim.un.org/ meetings/2022/4th-EG-LAM/ documents/2.2_Chris_Body.pdf
6https://www.un.org/en/landnatural-resources-conflict/pdfs/35- EN-%20Land%20Policy%20 Report_ENG%20181010pdf.pdf
7cf. https://sdgs.un.org/partnerships/ global-dialogue-water-tenure
8https://www.fao.org/cfs/workingspace/ workstreams/uptake/en/ and https://www.fao.org/fileadmin/ templates/cfs/Docs2324/Uptake/ VGGT_speaking_points_CFS_ meeting_18th_Dec_2023.pdf
12https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/ thematic-reports/ahrc4440- parlous-state-poverty-eradication-report-special-rapporteur