Based on preliminary findings by the Afghan government, out of half a million properties surveyed and registered in the eight provincial capitals of Afghanistan, only 14.9 percent of the properties possess a formal title deed while 41.8 percent have informal or customary documents and 43.2 percent don’t have any documents at all. In total, 85 percent of urban properties are vulnerable, lacking security of tenure.
In general, security of tenure refers to the legal rights of, and protections for, tenants.
The lack or weak security of tenure in Afghanistan, accompanied by the last four decades of political and security instability, has become a major issue for the country’s urban sector, including municipal governance. Lacking security of tenure, people are faced with the threat of forced eviction daily. It has also led to land grabbing. Based on an estimate, more than 240,000 hectares of land was usurped by 15,831 usurpers between 2002 and 2012, and due to weak security of tenure land conflicts make the largest share of disputes in Afghan legal and customary structures. According to the Afghan Ministry of Justice (MoJ), during 2016-17 and 2017-2018, over half (54,777) of the total petitions (100,546) registered with the department of Huquq (rights) of Ministry of Justice were related to land disputes while over three-fifths (44,389) of the total legal cases (72,625) registered with the department were also related to land conflicts. The legal and judicial organs in Afghanistan are some of the country’s most corrupt, meaning that in trying to settle land conflicts and property disputes within the system opens people to further abuse.
Moreover, municipalities only provide a Safayee (Urban Services Charge) booklet to properties that have legal titling, which is very few. This in turn further minimizes the government’s revenues and non-services delivery to ordinary people that are holding no or only customary title deeds.
Land and Property Registration in Afghanistan
The Afghan government launched the City For All (CFA) program in 2016 with the financial support of the European Union and USAID, and with the technical assistance from UN-Habitat in Kabul and seven Afghan provincial capitals, namely Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Nili, Bamyan and Kunduz. The CFA program has three main components: (1) effective land management, (2) strategic urban planning and (3) improved municipal finance systems.
The first component aims at surveying and registering properties as a first step toward improving the security of tenure for properties in urban areas and a rise in municipal revenue collection.
However, this is not the first time that the Afghan government has launched such an initiative to survey and register land and properties. In the past few decades, successive Afghan governments tried to “develop a national land registry” for collection of taxes, regularization of land ownership and legal titling. But in the end, according to one study, only “one-third of landholdings and one-fifth of arable land were surveyed, but no titles were issued.”
Due to high costs incurred by land registration, other Afghan governments relied upon a “self-reporting” mechanism for land registration; however, it did not produce the desired results due to insecurity, conflict, political instability, changing regimes with different systems, and in particular a lack interest. While concerning property registration, in the post-2001 era, various smaller-scale projects assisted by the international community were completed but failed to cover all the provinces.
Here Come the Occupancy Certificates (OC) to Address the Challenge
Under the CFA program, the Afghan government is now using Geographical Information System (GIS), remote sensing and information and communication technologies for the first time to collect and analyze property data for improving tenure security or to give a de-facto tenure security by granting occupancy certificates through Ministry of Urban Development and Land (Afghan Land Authority Department). In the long run, occupancy certificates can then be turned into official legal titling documents after following certain procedures.
The Afghan cabinet ratified the regulation on managing affairs related to the informal urban settlements in its 16th meeting on December 27, 2017 and then approved by a presidential decree on February 22, 2018. Based on this regulation, the Afghanistan Land Authority (ARAZI) is bound to register residential and commercial properties, public services institutes, vacant plots, and protected areas in informal urban settlements, and to provide occupancy certificates to residential properties’ occupiers.
There are four objectives of this regulation, including the one which aims “to protect the ownership rights of the owners of properties in informal settlements.”.
The land occupancy certificates will be given to Afghan urban informal dwellers in the five steps which are: (1) mobilization (2) standardization and establishment of Gozar Assemblies (3) property registration (4) property documents verification and recording and (5) beneficiary identification, payment, and distribution of occupancy certificates.
Boosting Security of Tenure
Before the 2014 presidential election, Ashraf Ghani stated in his manifesto, “we commit ourselves to legalise all properties that have legal flaws… Since the properties do not have a credible legal basis, a vast capital of our people is perpetually under threat.”
Based on Afghan government’s promise in the Geneva Mutual Accountability Framework presented in Geneva in late 2018, it is expected that 250,000 occupancy certificates will be distributed by the end of 2019 and additional 250,000 in 2020, while collectively, by the end of 2020, more than half a million property ownership certificates will be issued. This will increase the security of tenure of more than 54 percent of all Afghan urban properties.
President Ashraf Ghani also expressed the same thing in an occupancy certificate distribution ceremony: “[…] we will secure your properties by issuing property documents… All Afghan should have secure properties from now on, and the word “unplanned areas” has no meaning for us anymore.” The President also expects that “issuing land ownership certificates” will “cut down on land-grabbing practices.”
The Impacts of Occupancy Certificates on Afghans
Occupancy certificates will impact the Afghan society and economy in five ways:
First, they will enhance the security of tenure of urban properties located in larger Afghan cities, and would then also minimize property grabbing and disputes.
Second, the old Afghan municipal governance structure has severe problems in revenue estimation, revenue collection, and service delivery. (Recently a new Municipal Law was passed by the cabinet but it is too early to comment on its affects. But still, the CFA Program was initiated before the New Municipal Law). Due to the distribution of occupancy certificates, revenues will be enhanced as the municipalities will now be asking the informal settlements or people who don’t have formal legal titling to pay Safayee fees and in return, the municipalities provide services delivery to these previously omitted places. Using new technologies, revenue estimation and collection will be much more transparent. As of January 2019, the CFA program has enhanced municipal finance systems with $35 million in collected Safayee revenue and $2.3 million from business licenses revenues. This comes at a time that the foreign assistance with the Afghan government has decreased and the government is making its watch toward self-reliance.
Third, occupancy certificates will improve the economic position of property owners who previously lacked formal legal deeds. Based on Afghan estimations, occupancy certificates will increase the value of properties three times and will pave the way for investment in previously informal settlements (places which lack formal legal titling and that are out of city master plans’ boundaries). Also, the occupancy certificates property holder is now able to access micro-credit and Small-Medium Enterprise Loans from banks using the occupancy certificate as collateral.
Fourth, the CFA program is granting women the opportunity to jointly-own property along with her husbands through occupancy certificates made in their names on properties built on state land even if she is not a direct owner; otherwise, she will get the certificate under her name. This is backed by the regulation and comes at a time when Afghan women own only about 4.96 percent of properties in the references eight provincial capitals.
Fifth, the CFA program is also doing street addressing linked with property registration in the Afghan capital Kabul, which is the biggest Afghan city with a population of more than 6 million. This will have positive affects on the security situation as well as potentially on crime levels.
Ahmad Bilal Khalil is an urban researcher with UN-Habitat. He follows Afghan political-economic, governance issues and Sustainable Development Goals.
Noorullah Farajid is a Unit Leader (a.i) of Knowledge Management Unit in UN-Habitat and is following Afghan youth, urban and governance issues for a decade in UN-Habitat.
The views expressed here don’t reflect the organization’s views.