Study: World Bank Project for Landless Families Is Failing

A seven-year project funded by Germany and the World Bank to give secure and fertile land to some of the country’s poorest families has so far mostly failed to deliver on its goals and left most of the families no better off, according to a new study.

The study by rights group Licadho, “On Stony Ground: A look into social land concessions,” contradicts the World Bank’s own glowing review of its work.

Licadho urges against using the project as a model for a planned second phase, which, if approved, would effectively lift a freeze on new lending to Cambodia the Bank imposed four years ago, precisely because of the government’s poor record on land rights.

“While additional support is needed to meet the promises of reduced poverty and increased food security for many of the families supported by LASED [Land Allocation for Social and Economic Development], the World Bank and GIZ [Germany’s foreign aid agency] first need to acknowledge that the project is far from a replicable model, and nowhere near a success story by any standards,” the report said.

In 2008, Germany and the World Bank put up a combined $12.7 million—most of it came from the Bank—to find 10,000 hectares across the country to give to more than 3,000 poor families with little or no land. With the Land Management Ministry’s help, they eventually secured eight social land concessions in three provinces: Kompong Cham, Kompong Thom and Kratie.

In its last review of the project, in December, three months before it ended, the World Bank gave itself solid marks across the board. It said all four of its main goals had been met. The 3,000-plus families had all been assigned land for homes, farms, or both, and nearly 60 percent of them had moved in. Of the families who had moved in, the Bank said all of them had started farming and that their incomes had, on average, more than quadrupled.

“The activities and accomplishments have provided good lessons learned for the identification, development and sustainability of future [social land concession] sites,” the Bank said at the time.

But Licadho, which visited all eight concessions between October and March, says the reality for many of the families at all but one of the sites is not so rosy. It says many of the families complained of land that was too sandy or rocky to farm, or covered in forest they lacked the tools to clear, plots mired in land disputes, and sites missing promised infrastructure, schools or clinics.

“Numerous villagers at seven of the eight sites reported limited ability to use the allocated agricultural plots and hence gained no significant improvement in terms of food security,” it said. “As a result, poverty reduction was not achieved at the end of the project for the majority of the land recipients.”

According to the report, the government knew that at least two of the chosen sites were mostly covered with “poor” soil as early as 2006—two years before the project even began—thanks to a joint study by international consultants and local officials.

Licadho says some families have been forced to take on new debt to get by, find work as day laborers because their new farms were failing, or turn to logging.

As a consequence, the rights group says, some families have given up on the concessions and left. Based on its visits, it estimates that fewer than half of the families assigned plots were occupying them, well below the nearly 60 percent previously claimed by the World Bank.

One of the main goals of the LASED project is to give the families a piece of land they can own. But Licadho says the scheme is failing on that front, too.

By law, a family must occupy a plot on a social land concession for five consecutive years to qualify for a land title. But families that have been living on the sites for up to six are still waiting. Families that gave up and left, or intend to because their plots are of poor quality, may never receive a title.

Some families have struggled to use their plots because they are claimed by someone else.

“With the low settlement rates and limited use of agricultural land observed by Licadho…many land recipients risk failing to meet these conditions due to poor implementation of the project,” Licadho said. “Tenure security is by no means guaranteed for a sizeable part of the more than 3,000 land recipients.”

Officials at the Ministry of Land Management could not be reached yesterday. Neither the World Bank nor GIZ responded a request for comment.

Due to its shortfalls, Licadho said, the project “has failed to achieve the levels of success required to be considered a replicable model to reduce poverty and increase food security for rural landless and poor Cambodians.”

But that is exactly what is happening.

In a 2014 report on the project, Germany said the Cambodian government was already replicating the approach in six provinces.

The World Bank is also preparing a second, $27-million phase to the project that would improve the eight sites already established and add seven more.

To get started, though, the Bank will have to lift its moratorium on new lending to Cambodia, a proposal mired in its own controversy.

The World Bank imposed the lending freeze in 2011 in protest over the way the Land Management Ministry—the Bank’s future partner in any second phase of the LASED project—was doling out land titles. Some 3,000 families were forced out of their homes in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood because the ministry refused to let them apply for titles.

The Bank said it would not lift its lending freeze until the Boeng Kak dispute was settled, a condition the government appears unwilling to meet.

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