Civil society and donor engagement in land issues


Land has long been a basis for social mobilisation in the Mekong Region around issues of justice, inclusion and well-being. Most countries within the region have seen an explosion of civil society complaints, challenges and coalitions addressing intensified land-based disputes. However, the civil society landscape is also quite variegated. In the meantime, bilateral donors are heavily involved in land governance initiatives, recognising the centrality of land as a basis for livelihoods and food security. Foreign NGO and donor involvement in land tenure programs and policy debates raises issues of sovereignty and the matching of program design to the political-economic and socio-cultural circumstances in which initiatives are being implemented.

Key reform issues:

  • Making space for civil society input into land law and policy
  • Supporting coalitions for more inclusive land governance
  • Recognising grievances and creating less potentially punitive complaints procedures
  • Better alignment of donor programs in the land sector
  • Donor support for reform actors from all sections of society

Current critique and debate:

The category "civil society" is itself a topic of debate: should it mainly be focused on NGOs, or should media, educational and other civic institutions and social movements of various sorts also receive attention with regard to their role in land issues? There are also questions of the extent to which foreign NGOs working on land should be considered as "civil society" initiatives, but in some Mekong countries there is little political space for local organisational mobilisation around land issues. Questions arise over the role and effectiveness of donor-led initiatives on land governance, particularly given the sensitivities over sovereignty on this issue. To what extent can development partners become involved in policy advocacy, and to what extent should their role focus on supporting domestic processes for progressive reform?

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