The Pakistani provincial government in Punjab recently implemented a $45 million World Bank project to computerize and improve land records service delivery, contributing to long-lasting tenure security and more efficient land market operation. The problem is, the services delivered remained just as corrupt, the tenures given remained just as concentrated, and the only thing that became more efficient was the process by which powerful landowners bribed provincial land clerks to alter records in their favor.
It wasn’t the first time millions of dollars were spent in Pakistan to computerize corruption, and it’s likely not the last.
In the latest Economic Reform Feature Service article, “Taken Out of Context: Reflections on Private Property Reform in Pakistan,” Ali Salman documents a number of Pakistan’s failed attempts at improving the lot of its poor through private property rights reform. The intentions of such reform are vital for building a Pakistani democracy that delivers on such promises for the poor; but the context in which such reform takes place, was vitally ignored. Without accounting for context, any such reforms are superficial at best and conducive to corruption at worst.
Reforming private property rights begins with understanding the local context that currently governs them. Even in post-conflict zones, as long as there are people, there is a set of expectations about who has the right to own land, who owns which land, what are owners permitted to do with their land, how much land is worth, who maintains ownership records, and other features of ownership and exchange. If these expectations remain in favor of a concentrated group of powerful land-owning cronies, then even the most beautifully built courtrooms and brilliantly engineered record-keeping systems will only help their cause.
- The most crucial shortcoming Pakistan faces today is the institutional deficit in property rights.
- While private property rights are a prerequisite for economic development, they are not enforceable in isolation – they require the recognition of local history and context.
- When context and history are ignored, property rights reforms are superficial, ineffective, and costly, both politically and financially.