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Four Ways to Help Myanmar's Rural Poor

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Today, about half of the world's population is urban. This means that it is still nearly half rural.

Roughly three-quarters of people who live on less than $1.25 a day -- the 1.2 billion extreme poor, as recently estimated by the World Bank -- live in the countryside. The principal source of their livelihood, status and security is land.

The great majority, especially the extreme poor, lack reliable access to land of their own. They include tenant farmers or agricultural laborers on various private holders' land, and squatters or other insecure holders on land claimed by the government to be public.

In Myanmar, for example, where government and business leaders are now converging for the World Economic Forum on East Asia, over two-thirds of the entire population is still rural, and somewhere between 20-40 percent of are estimated to be completely landless; a large additional percentage lack any real legal security on the land they farm.

How to confront the needs of the vast number of families who are trapped in land-related, generational poverty in Myanmar and throughout the region will have profound consequences for future development, investment and stability. It is worth using the occasion of the Forum meeting to remind assembled leaders that in addressing this urgent issue they need to keep well in mind the following four points:

1) Look to the substantial existing successes. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and mainland China are all East Asian settings where sweeping land reforms have been carried out, reforms that played a key role in their overall development. The first three gave ownership to their tenant farmers, and the two latter broke up the collective farms, giving long-term individual rights.

2) Keep in mind that small farms -- as in the five success stories just referred to -- are almost always more productive and efficient than big, mechanized farms. This doesn't change -- and may not even then -- until you reach the point in "development" of being long on land, long on capital and very short on labor.

3) Assure equal land rights to women where reforms are carried out. Each dollar or yuan of income controlled by a wife goes farther, as a general rule, to meet the basic needs of the household.

4) Don't ignore the completely landless. Experience has demonstrated that ownership of even one-tenth of an acre (one-twenty-fifth of a hectare) can provide a crucial supplement to a previously landless household's nutrition and income, give them status in the community, provide empowerment for the wife (with her name on the title document) and yield multiple other benefits.