The land and its discontents

posted in: Social innovation | 0

Can social enterprise and empathy help?

by Toby Norman & Professor Jaideep Prabhu

Dusty street scene.
Toby Norman
Toby Norman, PhD student, Cambridge Judge Business School

On 24 April crowds gathered along the dusty roads of a small village outside Rangpur as shouting cut through the air. In the centre of the fray a man and a woman stood screaming at each other. Some in the crowd held clear allegiances and joined in the shouting, but most stood silent and watched. The conflict was about land. A long-standing border dispute over an unused field between the two households had erupted into angry public displays, with both sides claiming ownership yet neither holding formal deeds to prove their claim. Left unresolved there was a very real danger the dispute would escalate into violence. From the back of the crowd a BRAC amin or land entrepreneur Jahedul Islam stepped off his motorcycle, and with a quiet assurance waded into the crowd, steeling himself for the task ahead.

Scenes like this are all too common in Bangladesh. Research by Abul Barkat at the University of Dhaka suggests that more than 70 per cent of all legal cases in the country are driven by land disputes1. Growing population and skyrocketing land prices only intensify these conflicts, as previously small and ignored patches of property suddenly acquire value.

Professor Jaideep Prabhu
Professor Jaideep Prabhu, Cambridge Judge Business School

A recent survey by the Policy Research Institute found that four million households are currently engaged in a land dispute, with seven and a half per cent of them spiraling into actual violence2. The impact is especially harsh on the poor. Formal legal fees can cost a family on average BDT 93,471, driving many to resort to bribes – at an average BDT 22,270 per family. A backlog of cases has piled up in the courts for years making quick resolutions nearly impossible.

Reducing land violence: land entrepreneurs

To address this problem, in 2011, BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services Programme launched the ‘property rights initiative’ to reduce land violence. A key component of the programme was the creation of a new class of government-certified BRAC amins or land entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs were trained by BRAC to measure land and certify property rights, as well as deliver a range of other services and human rights monitoring for their local communities. Land entrepreneurs have the opportunity to earn an income from their survey work while also carrying an obligation to provide free surveys and services to the local poor.

Being a land entrepreneur is no simple task. Land entrepreneurs may need to solve complex and heated land disputes between families stretching back generations. A keen understanding of local power structures, not to mention integrity and work ethic, are critical requirements of the job. The land entrepreneur must balance a natural tension between choosing to conduct socially impactful free land measurements for the poor versus better-paying surveys for wealthier clients.

Our research, a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and BRAC, finds that there is a wide distribution of performance among land entrepreneurs. Despite the challenges they face, some land entrepreneurs truly excel. In fact the ‘star’ or top 25 per cent of land entrepreneurs account for over 50-75 per cent of all key programme outcomes.

Empathy as a key to performance

So what drives this high performance, and how can we recruit more like them?

Early data analysis suggests one unexpected factor: empathy. Initially a small component in our original research design, empathy scores measured using psychometric scales have demonstrated surprising predictive power for key outcomes like the focus on poor households, completion of land measurements, the selection of clients, prices charged and satisfaction of clients. In many ways this makes intuitive sense: the ability to relate to and empathise with other human beings is critical in complex social work. However, our data suggests that not all types of empathy are created equal. For instance higher perspective taking, the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, predicts both higher work output and higher prices. This ability is critical to working effectively with clients. Then again, too much perspective taking can drive merchant-like behaviour, with land entrepreneurs leveraging their close understanding of clients to maximise price. In contrast, low emotional contagion, the ability to keep a cool head under pressure, has no influence on client selection but it does drive higher client satisfaction. This suggests that the confidence and assurance that land entrepreneurs exhibit in the field has a strong impact on how deeply clients trust—and abide by—their judgments during land measurements.

Can empathy be taught?

These results are preliminary, and much work remains to be done. However, they suggest that ending land conflict is not just a technical challenge of money and law. Maximising performance requires social abilities like empathy, traits that our research shows you can measure and select for. Additionally, our findings raise a further tantalising possibility—can these skills of empathy be taught? The next phase of our research will focus on this question. Perhaps we will find that it is the simple, fundamental ability to relate to other humans (combined with some old fashioned self-interest) that ultimately proves critical in ending land violence in Bangladesh, bringing crowds together for different reasons on dusty village streets.

Find out more

Visit Professor Jaideep Prabhu’s faculty profile


1Barkat, A and Roy, P.K, (2004) Political Economy of Land Litigation in Bangladesh: A Case of Colossal National Wastage. Pathak Shamabesh
2 Policy Research Institute (2014) Socio-economic costs of property disputes: an empirical examination from Bangladesh. Dhaka: Policy Research Institute.

Toby Norman

Toby Norman

Toby Norman

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