Dr. Agnes Quisumbing

Question: Dr. Quisumbing, tell us about yourself; what is your professional background?

Answer: I am an economist by training, and have worked on intrahousehold and gender issues, land and property rights for 20 years at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). I came to IFPRI after working at the University of the Philippines and the World Bank. At IFPRI, I led the gender and intrahousehold research program, and co-led work on poverty and economic mobility and gender and assets.

Question: You have researched women’s land rights in a variety of countries in Africa and Asia. What does your research show about the importance of women’s land rights in these different contexts, and their relationship with other important development issues?

Answer: Women’s land rights play out differently in different countries and contexts. The importance of women’s land rights to poverty, economic mobility, and sustainable agriculture crucially depends on country and context, including the women’s ability to own and invest in other types of assets (including their own human capital) and the availability of non-farm economic opportunities. In Bangladesh, for example, our work on the intergenerational transmission of poverty shows that it is the husband’s land that matters for the household’s ability to move out of poverty in the long run—but that is because very few women own land in the first place. In the Philippines, which has a more egalitarian inheritance system, parents tend to bequeathe land to sons, but invest in daughters’ education, enabling daughters to move out of agriculture into better-paying non-agricultural jobs. In Ghana and Ethiopia, stronger land rights for women are associated with women’s greater ability to undertake investments in soil productivity, such as tree planting and adoption of climate smart agricultural practices. Decisionmaking rights are also important: in Uganda, we found that that adoption of orange sweet potato, which has been disseminated to reduce vitamin A deficiency, is more likely on plots that are jointly owned by the husband and wife, but in which the wife has the primary decision-making role on what to grow. The fact that women’s land rights have different implications in different settings means that we need to understand the social and cultural context of land rights when designing the appropriate intervention to strengthen women’s property rights—not just land rights, but rights over resources, more generally speaking.

Question: What are some of the key challenges faced by women in acquiring stronger land rights?

Answer: The biggest challenge comes from deep-seated gender norms that discriminate against women by denying them rights to property, particularly land. There still are entrenched beliefs that women should not own land, because they are not farmers. Obviously, this has no basis in reality, because many women farm, but old beliefs die hard. There also are other beliefs that women depend on men and should not own property in their own right. And even if legislation mandates equal property rights between men and women, in many cases women are not aware of their legal rights. For example, even after a successful community land registration effort in Ethiopia, the gap between men and women in knowledge about different dimensions of land rights is quite large.

Question: How are these challenges being dealt with? What steps should donors and practitioners take to help secure women’s land rights and ensure that their programming does no harm?

Answer: These challenges are being dealt with in creative ways. There are efforts being undertaken by national or state governments, such as reforms of inheritance law and family law in India and Ethiopia, respectively, joint titling efforts in Vietnam, as well as efforts being undertaken by local governments, NGOs, and civil society organizations. In a Helen Keller International homestead food production program in Burkina Faso, where men do not believe that women are farmers or should hold land, the program negotiated with community leaders to lease land for a community garden, where women were able to plant vegetables. Women were also taught how to plant nutritious vegetables in their own home gardens. In intervention areas, qualitative work found that attitudes towards women as farmers, and as land owners, had shifted favorably—a change in attitudes that wasn’t found in areas where the program did not work. In West Bengal, Landesa’s Nijo Griha, Nijo Bhumi (NGNB) program allocates land to poor households and promotes the inclusion of women's names on land titles. Finally, in Tanzania and other parts of Africa, community-based legal aid programs employing paralegals are helping to educate women about their legal rights as well as providing assistance in claiming these rights. These are just a few examples of what can be done, both at the policy level and on the ground.

Question: Moving forward, what do you see as the key research questions that need to be examined further with regards to women’s land rights?

Answer: I think that we still need to document more systematically the nature and extent of women’s land rights, over the entire spectrum of use and control rights to full ownership. We also need to understand more fully how such rights are shared with men, and exactly what joint control and ownership means in different contexts. It would be good to know what types of policies and interventions work best to strengthen women’s land rights, and what are the short- and long-term impacts of interventions to strengthen these rights. We often focus only on short-term impacts, not recognizing that interventions that affect asset ownership and control often have effects that unfold over time, and even over generations.

Question: Finally, how do you think the SDGs will impact the issues of women, land and food?

Answer: There is an explicit SDG on gender equality (SDG5), and one of its targets has to do with gender equality in “rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.” But some countries still have laws that discriminate against women in terms of property and inheritance rights, and customary practice may still be gender-biased even if statutory law mandates equal rights to own land. Gender inequality is not an issue that is confined to SDG 5, but cuts across the other SDGs, for example, SDG1 on ending poverty, SDG2 on ending hunger, SDG3 on health and well-being, SDG 13 on climate change, etc. Achieving gender equality is a goal in itself, but also helps to attain other development goals.


For the world’s poor, particularly the rural poor, land is their most critical non-labor asset. This important asset needs to be protected and respected by the public and private sectors to reduce vulnerabilities and conflict and promote empowerment and economic growth. This is why the global community’s unanimous endorsement three years ago of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (VGGT) was such a milestone. The VGGT recognize that: “The eradication of hunger and poverty, and the sustainable use of the environment, depend in large measure on how people, communities and others gain access to land, fisheries and forests.”

Secure access to and control of land and other valuable natural resources provides women and men, the elderly and youth, indigenous peoples, pastoralists and other vulnerable groups with positive incentives to conserve their lands and to invest to enhance its potential. Secure land rights help to increase agricultural productivity and food security, contributing to more resilient rural economies. More secure rights also reduce costly conflicts – conflicts that take lives, destroy property and constrain economic growth. And with secure rights, communities contribute in important ways to protecting forests and biodiversity – lessening the harmful impacts of global climate change.

This is why it is so important to ensure that a land indicator remain as part of the effort to track progress on SDG 1: Ending Poverty in All Its Forms Everywhere.

Today 75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas where poverty rates are substantially higher (at 29%) than they are in urban areas (13%). Many of these rural poor depend upon agriculture for their livelihoods. Unfortunately, these livelihoods are constrained by poor infrastructure, lack of inputs, weak credit markets and, in many cases, weak land governance. By addressing these constraints and by securing rights to land and natural resources we can make progress in increasing agricultural growth, which we know is particularly effective at reducing poverty As the World Bank notes: “Access to land, water, and human capital critically determine the ability of households to participate in agricultural markets, secure livelihoods in subsistence farming, compete as entrepreneurs in the rural nonfarm economy, and find employment in skilled occupations.”

Given the importance of secure rights to land and natural resources for the world’s poor, we strongly encourage the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Indicators to include a robust and measurable land indicator under Goal 1:

Percentage of people with secure tenure rights to land (out of total adult population), with legally recognized documentation and who perceive their rights to land as secure, by sex and by type of tenure.

As USAID knows, land matters for ending poverty.


Female farmers in Zambia

It seems natural to believe that secure property rights affect a farmer’s willingness to make longer-term investments. If farmers do not have secure property rights, they will be less likely to plant and sustain trees, conserve resources or make long term improvements to the soil because their land might be taken away from them before they can reap the benefits of these investments. But does this relationship play out in reality, particularly for the millions of smallholder farmers across the developing world?

This question is important because these types of long-term investments are critical for reducing extreme poverty, improving food security and nutrition, and addressing climate change. Understanding the degree to which property rights affect incentives to invest and conserve is important for policy makers and donors. Which is why USAID is attempting to answer this question in Zambia through a randomized controlled trial – the gold standard of rigorous, scientific impact evaluations.

Agriculture supports the livelihood of over 70% of the population in Zambia, including 78% of women. Relative to other countries in the region, it has an abundance of fertile land, water, and a favorable climate for agricultural production. Yet, despite these favorable conditions, crop yields are well below global averages and 80% of rural Zambians live in extreme poverty.

Improved conservation agriculture and agroforestry practices – such as planting fertilizer trees between crops – would help improve crop yields. However, adoption of these “climate-smart agriculture” practices has been low. In eastern Zambia’s Chipata District, agroforestry tree species were planted on only 6% of fields. One reason why might be that many farmers in Zambia do not have secure land rights. The vast majority of rural Zambians live on customary land without formal documentation of their land rights.

To address this, USAID works with four local chiefs and the Chipata District Land Alliance, a local NGO, to 1) map, demarcate and certify the customary land rights of local farmers and 2) promote sustainable agroforestry practices that facilitate tree planting and survivorship.

To rigorously measure the effectiveness of these approaches, USAID randomly assigned 75 villages to receive the agroforestry extension, 75 villages to receive the land certification program, 75 villages to receive both, and 75 villages to receive neither (the control group). By conducting extensive surveys in these villages over a three-year period, before and after activities take place, the impact evaluation will be able to rigorously measure changes over time. The results will help answer the question of “How do changes in property rights that strengthen a farmer’s perception of long term security over farmland affect a farmer’s decision to practice climate smart agriculture, including agroforestry, on their own farms?”

For USAID – and for the millions of people in the developing world living without secure rights to land and resources – the answer to this question could be an important part of shaping efforts to end extreme poverty, reduce hunger, and address a rapidly changing climate.

Learn more: view a presentation on the baseline findings from this impact evaluation from the American Evaluation Association conference here.


Heather Huntington, PhD

Dr. Heather Huntington is an Impact Evaluation Specialist on USAID’s Evaluation, Research and Communication project, implemented by The Cloudburst Group. She leads the design and implementation of impact evaluations for land tenure and natural resource management projects in Ethiopia, Guinea, Liberia and Zambia. Dr. Huntington is among the authors of the 2015 World Bank Paper: Perceptions of Tenure Security and a presenter at the American Evaluation Association (AEA) Conference discussing impact evaluations testing improvements to land tenure in the context of climate smart agriculture in Zambia, artisanal diamond mining in Guinea and community forestry management in Zambia. As part of our Ask the Expert series, we asked Dr. Huntington to describe some of the processes that go into designing and implementing an impact evaluation for USAID:

Question: Tell us about yourself, what is your professional background?

Answer: I design and implement impact evaluations related to land tenure and natural resource management, service delivery and local governance. I received a PhD in Public Policy and Political Science from the University of Michigan and my dissertation was an impact evaluation of a USAID water demand management project in Southern Kyrgyzstan. After graduate school, I served as a full time Democracy Fellow for USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, where I continue to have an affiliation. My role in the Center was as an impact evaluation specialist for democracy- and governance-related projects.

Question: Why are impact evaluations significant to USAID’s land tenure work?

Answer: Impact evaluations are an important tool to measure the effectiveness of programs in achieving their desired results. Specifically, they can improve USAID’s programming by refining an intervention to an outcome of interest, such as higher agricultural productivity or lower levels of conflict. Impact evaluations help decision makers identify and address holes in the logic of a program’s design.

In addition, well-designed impact evaluations often involve a large number of household surveys and thus produce a large amount of useful data that can serve multiple purposes. This includes testing the program theory and hypotheses, but also exploring many other research questions in depth. 

Question: What are some of the key take-aways from the land tenure impact evaluations you are presenting at the AEA conference?

Answer: One take-away is that it it is important to plan for an impact evaluation at the initial design stage of a program, including conducting a cost-benefit analysis, to help determine the type of impact evaluation the program should use. This is important because rigorous experimental designs require that the program implementation design be written into the fabric of the program design as early as the project’s approval stage. Quasi-experimental impact evaluations are generally the easiest to carry out from implementation standpoint, however,  from a research perspective, these methods have numerous drawbacks and present multiple methodological challenges. 

Considerations such as if the impact evaluation includes a community listing, or pre-census, of the study areas under evaluation is often imperative for the sampling design and needs to be factored in at the budgeting and planning stage. Additionally, factors including the preferred data collection method, should be examined. In our experience,  electronic data generally produces higher quality data than paper data collection but requires significant preparation, programming and training for local data collection firms.. 

Finally, a rigorous impact evaluation requires very close collaboration between the evaluation team,  program implementer and donors. While the evaluation should be led by independent third-party groups, communication and coordination regarding timing, interventions and geographic scope is essential between the evaluation team and implementing partner.  

Question: Why is the American Evaluation Association Conference important and why is it significant that USAID’s land tenure impact evaluations are presented at this conference?

Answer: I believe that development partners and researchers will be interested in learning about our data and research products and that other evaluation specialists and firms will be interested in learning about our process and methods. In addition to ‘getting the word out’ about what we are doing and what we have learned, it is helpful for us to know what other work is being done in the field of  land tenure and natural resource evaluation.


Lauren Persha, PhD

Lauren Persha, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Research Advisor at The Cloudburst Group. In her role as an advisor, she provides research and technical guidance on a portfolio of USAID-funded impact evaluations in the land and resource governance sectors - including impact evaluations of land tenure projects in Ethiopia, Zambia, Guinea, and Liberia.

She has been involved in evaluation work in Eastern Zambia since 2014, where she contributes to the design and implementation of a randomized controlled trial impact evaluation of USAID’s Tenure and Global Climate Change project.

Conducting rigorous, field-based, mixed qualitative and quantitative methods impact evaluations at scale–as we are currently doing for the impact evaluation of USAID’s Tenure and Global Climate Change project in Zambia–is no easy task. This particular evaluation collects data with smartphones and Open Data Kit to survey 3500 households across 300+ villages, and has enumerator teams conduct focus group discussions and key informant interviews across a range of important village groups. The logistics of an intense rollout of data collection across a large geography, with many survey administrators, in a condensed time frame, can be quite a challenge.

These types of evaluations are built upon a comprehensive set of survey instruments, which must be tailored to local contexts while also allowing for an eventual broader comparability. In addition to being unique, yet generally comparable, these evaluations must also adequately capture information on a range of indicators and potential mechanisms by which households are impacted by project activities over time. Close collaboration between the third-party evaluation team and project implementers is essential, as is the careful timing of the evaluation with the sequencing of project activities.

Unexpected field challenges are par for the course, so flexibility is key. For example, developing an appropriate sampling frame for the household surveys was a challenge in Zambia, where the evaluation team had only lists of village names to work with because comprehensive information around villages and their locations did not exist. Verifying village information during survey implementation uncovered inevitable discrepancies–such as villages listed under multiple names or located outside the project area–and led to the evaluation team eventually conducting its own full listing of communities in other project areas prior to roll-out.

The broader payoff to the development sector in undertaking impact evaluation work is high. The benefits of using rigorous and direct evidence to grow the knowledge base around the impacts by which innovative land tenure programming may achieve its development objectives extend far beyond that of any individual project. Given the current visibility and growing acknowledgement of the role that land tenure issues play on household welfare–as well as potential knock-on effects for governance, land use sustainability, food security, female empowerment, and so on–such evaluations also contribute valuable evidence on how to increase effectiveness of future development programming across a wide range of sectors.



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