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It is difficult to imagine a more important social and economic problem than global poverty. The numbers are staggering. A fifth of the world survives on less than $1 a day. The majority of these people live in rural areas, relying on agriculture for sustenance and well-being. For these families, land is their single greatest asset, and their relationship to the land largely defines their access to opportunity, income, nutrition and status.

Land ownership changes lives. Simply put, land provides opportunity and hope for the world’s poorest. I have seen this in more than 40 countries, through programmes that have had an impact on more than 400m lives. One of the most important things I have learnt is that throughout the world, regardless of culture, faith or economic level, there is a widespread distribution of IQ and gumption. And when you fuse IQ and gumption with opportunity, it takes only a little land to make a big difference.

To provide a glimpse of how land ownership can transform lives, meet Jiyappa. Jiyappa was a landless labourer working in the fields of Andhra Pradesh, India, for less than $1 a day. Fifteen years ago, Jiyappa and his wife Sukamma became “micro-landowners” of a small plot of land. It was only a 10th of an acre, but that micro-plot provided the foundation to build a future for their family. Like all parents, they wanted the best for their children, but without assets or education, their opportunities were almost non-existent – until they obtained land.

They started by building a modest shelter. They planted a vegetable garden and more than a dozen fruit trees, providing nutrition and income for the family. With that income, they purchased goats and chickens, which they kept on their plot. Being landowners also improved their social status. It gave Jiy­appa and Sukamma the ability to move their children out of the fields and into the classroom. Being landowners transformed their modest day-to-day survival to a long-term vision: a future.

That long-term vision led Jiy­appa and Sukamma to plant 42 teak trees around the boundary of their plot. In a few years, they will sell those mature trees for the enormous sum of $21,000 to provide for them in their old age and to pass on to their children. They are now the proud parents of educated children, no longer relegated to debilitating poverty as day labourers. They have hope – and a future.

Secure land rights work because of the fundamental ability of poor families, such as Jiyappa and Sukamma, to work hard and find creative solutions. Land rights enable people to feed themselves, invest in their future, establish a home enterprise, improve the health of their families and expand educational opportunities for their children. Women’s secure property rights empower and protect them, making them less vulnerable.

These hard-working families are true everyday heroes.

Secure land rights have led to transformational changes – in part due to a small cadre of dedicated land rights practitioners around the globe. I have seen these extraordinary professionals turn away from lucrative careers to help some of the world’s poorest people help themselves.

These dedicated individuals are true professional heroes.

Efforts to help one landless family or one village at a time obtain land are worthy. But positive changes in law and policy can have a much broader impact. In order for millions of landless families to benefit from land ownership, changes are required at the systemic level – structural changes. Implementing change in policy and law can provide large-scale, sustainable and generational results.

This requires courageous political leadership. In my organisation, the Rural Development Institute, we have formed partnerships with key leaders in more than 40 countries who have the courage to make such institutional changes – changes that improve the lives of millions of their fellow citizens.

These leaders are true political heroes.

And none of this would be possible without the generous support of philanthropic people and organisations, especially those visionaries who go beyond short-term fixes and make strategic investments in changing systems and institutions for long-term results.

Strategic philanthropy is never easy. It is challenging, and it requires conviction and insight. In my view, the people who lead this philanthropic revolution deserve our profound gratitude.

These are true visionary heroes.

Success in achieving systemic change requires partnerships at the philanthropic, programme, and political levels. Partnerships require relationships. Relationships require trust. And trust requires effort and vulnerability.

What we at RDI know is that it is not about RDI. Many of you have never heard of RDI before today. I would like to think that is because we direct credit to the heroes we work with – those beneficiaries, leaders and philanthropic partners that have the courage and persistence to take on the challenge of changing systems for the benefit of the poorest and most marginalised.

No single intervention is a silver bullet. Alleviating global poverty is not just about land rights; it is about basic education, healthcare, access to micro-credit and clean water, empowering women, and so on. Solutions for poverty are always much more than land rights; however, they are rarely less – especially because most poverty is rural and land is the most important source of income, nutrition, wealth, power and status.

The face of international humanitarian and development work has changed – and for the better. The fishing metaphor captures it. In alleviating poverty, we have evolved from a mindset of handing out fish. We have learned that it is better to give out fishing poles and teach people how to fish. But we need to go further still and address the larger issues – the structural issues – that continue to impede progress. We need to ask “Who owns the pond?”

The writer is the president and chief executive of the Rural Development Institute, an international non-profit organisation working to provide secure land rights to the world’s poorest

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