Did you know, around the world nearly 2.5 billion people rely on land for their livelihoods? Yet many do not have the tenure to their land necessary to thrive.

Securing land rights for the world’s poorest people is the work of Landesa, who in 2022, received a $20 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. With a history going back to the Vietnam War, Landesa’s efforts to strengthen gender-equal land rights have helped improve the lives of many hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Nevertheless, land rights remain foundational to just about every current global development issue, including accelerating gender equality, improving economic prosperity and arresting the climate crisis.

In the latest of our series of Global 20 interviews, Ben Morton-Wright, Founder, Group CEO and Director, Global Philanthropic Holdings, interviews Landesa’s Chief Development Officer, Mark Ruffo, who explains why they don’t accept government funding, their capacity building in the Global South and how they are uniquely positioned to help 400 million rural women realise the benefits of strength and land rights by 2027.

Ben Morton-Wright 0:00

Today I’m speaking with Mark Ruffo, who’s the Chief Development Officer for Landesa, which is a fantastic and interesting organisation. Mark, welcome.

Mark Ruffo 0:10

Thank you, Ben, I’m very happy to be here.

Ben Morton-Wright 0:12

Thank you for joining our Global 20. I believe you’re on the other side of the States at the moment, I’m in the UK, and we’re gonna be talking about the Global South and Asia. So there you are, that’s a truly global discussion. I’m really pleased to talk to you a bit more about Landesa. I’ve got to know the organisation over the last few years and been immensely impressed with the work you’ve done. But perhaps you could tell the audience what what the story is around Landesa and how he came about and some of the things that you’ve been doing over the decades because I know it’s a long established organisation with a very interesting mission. So perhaps you could tell us a bit more about your work.

Mark Ruffo 0:49

Yeah, thank you for that opportunity. So Landesa does have a long history. So we’ve been doing work for 50 years now. And it started during the Vietnam War. So our founder, Roy Prosterman, was interested in finding ways to help decrease the recruitment of the Viet Cong of smallholder farmers. And so he was working with the US government and started a programme called Land to the Tiller. And under this programme, 1 million smallholder farmers were given land, and those who were participating in that project actually stayed with the land and embraced a rural economy life. And the impact of this was that recruitment by the Viet Cong amongst this population decreased by 80%. So it was a phenomenal success for that particular project in that context. But what it really did is it showed the power of how secure land rights can have tremendous impact on many things. In this case, it was impact on peace and security, and really helping to provide that confidence, and that security to stay engaged in an economic pursuit, as opposed to joining a war effort. But it opened the door to all kinds of land reform efforts and really trying to unlock those benefits.

So if I could, I’ll just take a tiny step back and really describe what land rights are and how the investment works. And sort of this is a little bit of a legalese definition, but I’ll try to soften it a bit. But land rights are a legal and a social guarantee, to manage, use and inherit land and the outputs of land, through ownership or through long term tenure rights. So depending upon a legal framework, it may be something that people in the United States are familiar with, which would be a deed, or it could be the formalisation of customary land rights, or community land rights. So different kinds of tenure rights, but the impact is the same as that people have security in their relationship with their land. They know that they will be there in the future, and that they have rights to the outputs of the land.

And knowing that you have those rights, completely transforms your relationship with the land. You make investments in the land, long term investments, which can increase your productivity. You have security for your family, you’ll make different decisions about family structure, you will bring different people into conversations about those decisions. So it’s really a transformative thing to have in place. Even today, though, there’s well over a billion rural people who don’t have secure land rights. So there’s a lot of work left to do. But if I may, can I tell you a tiny bit about how Landesa works? So Landesa works to really change the systems around land tenure. So there’s a lot of talk in philanthropy and global development about systems change work. And Landesa, I believe, does some of the purest systems change work out there. So we work with governments, with stakeholders, with advocates and communities, to really change the legal system around land tenure. There’s a really simplified version of this is that we do four things. We build evidence around the land tenure and legal systems that are very hyperlocal. So we understand how land tenure is managed, down to a village level.

And when we say we understand that, what I really mean is, the government might have a set of rules and laws in place, but how those are actually implemented and enforced and viewed at the community level may be very, very different from what the intentions were when those laws were written. Or, those laws may be antiquated and local implementations have evolved. So we really spend some time understanding the local situation. So we build a lot of evidence. Then we collaborate and reform with government to support pro poor, rural land policies, to really bring the community into that conversation and make sure that the system is benefiting that. Then we drive that change through education. We do a lot of supporting access to justice. So we make sure that not only are government stakeholders, but also community beneficiaries, actually are aware of these changes. And we educate and train them so that they can actually access that justice. And then the final thing that we do is we capacity built, and we make sure that local communities actually have the knowledge and the ability to take these reforms forward on their own. So there’s an exit point for Landesa. So we leave and we hope that local communities have the ability to maintain progress on this land rights journey.

Ben Morton-Wright 6:40

Absolutely fascinating and very well described. When I got used to Landesa and the work you do, it took me some time to just realise the power of what you do when you’re talking about such huge land masses, and so many millions and millions of people and billions of people that this affects and the lives that it affects, and the power of change in this area. But tell us more about the philanthropic journey of Landesa, and how philanthropy has played a role in empowering those communities and working with governments and actually changing, which you have. I mean, from my take, you’ve made a massive impact into quite literally millions of millions of people’s lives through your awareness and interventions in the way that you’ve just described. But tell us about what the role of philanthropy has been behind that and how that continues.

Mark Ruffo 7:31

Yeah, thanks, Ben. So you know, the impact of our work, as you just mentioned, and helping millions and millions of people, it’s really true. Over the past 50 years, we’ve worked in nearly 60 countries and have had an impact on what we calculate to be half a billion people, 550 million people have been impacted by changes that we have supported. So the impact is tremendous. And that’s really the power of systems change. When you can reform something at a legal level, it’s really powerful. This is durable, long lasting change that can, when implemented correctly, impact all of the people in the country.

But because of the way we work, we don’t accept funds from governments, right? To us, that’s a major conflict of interest. We are not going in and reforming a government with their funds and doing what they want us to do. We work with willing partners. We only work when a government asks us to help them do their work, but we do it with third party funds, essentially, we do it through philanthropy. That allows us the freedom to, you know, tell the government some things that they don’t need or they don’t want to hear, right. Some uncomfortable information that, you know, to really improve the lives of your people and to make the right changes, this is what you need to do. And so it’s a philanthropy driven organisation. The majority of our work is supported through grants. We can projectise a lot of our work.

But some of the most important work that we do is reactive. It’s responding to a government request, or even just having a meeting with some government officials and some bureaucrats, where they say to us, look, we see an opportunity to change some policies related to smallholder tenure in this region, what should we do? And we will sit down with them and we will help them to understand all those things that I mentioned before, the local contacts, what they need to do, but that’s almost a spontaneous situation. They may ask us to have that meeting next week. And the only way to support that kind of work is through unrestricted funds. So some of the most important donors we have are those that give us the freedom to respond to opportunities and to pivot when we need to, and that happens through unrestricted funds.

Ben Morton-Wright 10:10

So there’s some huge lessons out of that, you know, the power of philanthropic organisations to affect lives through this kind of intervention. I think that’s the most impressive piece that you’ve talked about. But also the role of philanthropy, providing you independence effectively, meaning that you come back from a place of independence with backers where you’re not conflicted, I think, is a second really important piece of what you’ve just said. And then the third, about the role of unrestricted gifts, which we’ll come on to later on in our discussion. So I think this is a really interesting area for philanthropy and I’m really pleased to tease this out.

I’m aware through the work, and I was lucky enough to be involved in some work with the organisation, and really impressed with how the work of land reform all those years ago has actually turned into some pretty big, other big strategic issues. And maybe you want to talk through the current themes and how you’re responding to those current themes. Because I think what is interesting is how land reform, which is so important, has now become a very powerful tool in so many other factors that are so important in our world today. So maybe you could talk through the kinds of issues that funders are funding and the kind of issues you’re now tackling through the organisation that’s born out of the land reform discussion?

Mark Ruffo 11:35

Yeah, absolutely. So when we were started, really the interest there was about creating economic opportunities for farmers so that they wouldn’t engage in a conflict-based movement. So economic opportunity and poverty alleviation are really the foundational elements to our work. But as land rights have grown as an issue and been implemented, and our work has been implemented in more places, we’ve realised that land rights are really foundational to just about every global development issue that’s out there. So if we look at some of the huge issues that are facing the world today, you’ll see that there’s a really strong connection to land. The first one, and this is one that is really near and dear to Landesa’s work is gender equality and women’s rights. And the connection might not seem super obvious at first. But when we’re talking about land rights, we’re really talking in large part about inheritance rights. And land is usually in most places a family’s biggest asset. And if a woman, a wife, or a daughter cannot inherit their family’s land, there will never be a basis for gender equality in that legal system. And so in, in a huge way, land rights are THE foundation for gender equality. So everything that we do and all of our work has a gender lens. We’re always trying to improve laws and policies so that women are more equally included in land tenure systems. So that’s just one example.

But there’s several others. I mean, climate change, and all of the efforts around climate change are very, very closely tied to the land. Right? And so when you’re talking about climate change prevention and the fight against climate change, it’s all about finding ways to implement renewable energy sources, to prevent deforestation, to sequester carbon, and all of those are land intensive uses. And if you don’t have the right legal framework in place, you’re not going to maximise these efforts. For example, if smallholder farmers are not included as stakeholders, in carbon sequestration schemes, then you’re not going to have smallholder farmers participating. And smallholder farmers still are in control of huge, huge percentages of land, particularly in the Global South. And so it’s really important for the legal land tenure framework to include them in order to be successful when it comes to climate change.

Other aspects of climate change adaptation, as communities adapt to, you know, rising sea levels and changes in rainfall, land tenure is going to be really important. If we’re talking about moving communities, distances so that they can continue to even exist, because their land is going to be underwater, then land tenure is really critical for doing that in a orderly, rule of law, based way. So, land just comes back and is really connected to just about every issue. The new issue that we’re seeing a lot of resources flowing towards, and a lot of attention being driven towards, is the relationship that indigenous people in local communities have with their land. IPLCs still have really strong connections to probably close to half of the land in the world. And if there’s unsecure rights, or any kind of ambiguity there, the behaviour that those communities are going to engage in around their land is going to be not very forward thinking. There’s not a long term horizon there. And we know, an actual study just came out last week, that indigenous people, when they have secure land rights, are better stewards of their land.

Ben Morton-Wright 15:48

I mean, it’s just fascinating the way it cuts across so many issues that are so important – gender rights and climate change. And then obviously, inequality, because poverty alleviation has and that’s something I have learned from from from my dealings and workings around this area, is that it’s also profound the way you can really make a big difference in people’s relationship with land and their ability to actually get out of poverty, through change in their relationships alone. So I think these are all so important issues, inequalities, that we’re looking at today.

I’m extremely interested to explore a little bit further, the unrestricted gift. Obviously this is part of our 20 interviews and I was very struck with one of the interviews, which was Steve Shirley, who talked about her work. She’s given almost 100 million away, I think, about how she saw it as Venture Philanthropy, almost as a businesswoman that gets really involved and is very successful. So it’s not just the money, it’s about the expertise and making the money work, in the work that she’s done around autism. And I was very struck, and I had the privilege of talking to some of your donors, particularly in Asia, about the kind of support they’ve given. And this is very significant and substantial support, and the way that they describe their support almost as a leap of faith, because in a way, it was unrestricted, it was significant support, but it was philanthropy to support what hope would be a big outcome in terms of government change, or land reform yet, you can’t really define that. And you can’t really define those outcomes from day one, it’s a bit of a leap of faith. And I was inspired with, particularly your donors in Asia, because that is a relatively new phenomenon, to see donors, particularly in Asia, giving unrestricted grants, where the outcomes aren’t quite as specific. And it is more more of a strategic leap of faith to say, well, I’ll support this organisation, because I think it will have a dramatic impact. And of course, they’re all very happy with the impact that’s been made.

But maybe you could just reflect back on your thoughts around those kinds of unrestricted gifts, and also the growth of that within Asia and how do you deal with those kinds of gifts? And those kinds of donors? And are they the more sophisticated philanthropists that we’re seeing coming through? I’d be very interested to know your thoughts on that area.

Mark Ruffo 18:17

Yeah, you’re absolutely right, that a lot of our work is, as I was mentioning before, is responsive work to request from the government and relationship building and the government. And really what we’re doing is we’re trying to build momentum within a government or within an ecosystem to to facilitate change, right? Everyone that we’re talking to is interested in that end result. But the journey to get there is not well defined. And so we don’t know what needs to be done and who we can recruit to become a stakeholder and a champion. And so the journey sometimes can be very long. And as you said, it’s the outcomes, the short term outcomes can be really ambiguous.

And so our donors have to be donors who trust us to do the right work. But they also have to believe in the long game, that it’s going to take some time to change the law in a country of a billion people that is bureaucratic and can sometimes be plotting in it’s changed. But it can be done. And so there is a leap of faith there. And we are lucky enough to have had a group of donors who have stuck with us for really one extents. So, our work in China, for example, we started work in China in the 80s. And so we’ve been there for over 30 years, cultivating relationships and working with the Chinese bureaucracy to help them implement the plans that they feel are appropriate for their rural land holders. And sometimes that work is, you know, you go decades before you see real significant change. But in our experience it does happen. And we’ve been fortunate enough to have those donors who have stuck by us to watch it happen.

Ben Morton-Wright 20:23

And I think they’ve been incredibly impressed and your reputation, it’s all about trust as well, and longevity. And I know, you operate in many countries where others aren’t operating because of that long, trusted relationship that you’ve established. And I think that’s a very important element for why people have perhaps supported you. And have really enjoyed supporting you. And that’s certainly my take, talking to some of your donors.

We’ve got a couple of things that we want to cover off before the 20 minutes have run out. One of them is really, we’ve touched on the Global South, and you’ve really pioneered the development of this kind of work in the Global South. But what is your sense of what is happening and how important is the Global South? We’ve talked a lot about it recently and it’s a very important issue in philanthropy at the moment, internationally, but what’s your sense of how important that is and how you develop in your plans to make sure that that’s integrated in your work?

Mark Ruffo 21:19

Yeah, it’s absolutely critical for Landesa. And I would say probably for any organisation, especially ones that have traditionally been based in the Global North. The trends in philanthropy are let’s move the expertise, the capacity, the decision making, to the communities that actually are involved in this, so where the beneficiaries and where the work was actually done.

And so Landesa’s history is we’re an American organisation and we did work in the Global South. That’s not how we look anymore. We’re now an organisation that has leadership across the globe. And we’re on a journey to do this even better, we want our capacity to be driven by local communities and in country nationals. And so we’re in a process right now, where we’re doing a lot of capacity building in the Global South. All of our work is in the Global South. We should have all of our capacity and all of our knowledge and decision making in those places. And so that’s the journey that we’re on right now. It’s not an easy journey, right? It’s a very big change in perspective for us as an organisation. And it’s expensive. It’s not something that just happens freely. It takes an investment.

Ben Morton-Wright 22:44

It’s such an important issue. And I think maybe we should circle back on that very issue at a future Global 20 because the Global South, it’s absolutely fascinating what is happening in that philanthropic marketplace. So I commend all the work you’re doing and effort you’re making, because that’s gonna be the next phase for the organisation.

Just to wrap this up, and it’s a question that everyone will be dying to ask, is obviously, your huge gift from MacKenzie Scott and maybe you can tell us more? Because certainly when I read that, just recently, because it was announced only quite recently, I can say I nearly fell off my chair! But I’m not surprised because you are the organisation you are. But were YOU surprised? Tell us a bit more about that gift and the magnitude of the gift and how have you responded? And how have you worked with that new money?

Mark Ruffo 23:31

Yeah, the gift was an absolutely spectacular and transformative gift for us. Were we surprised? Yeah. So initially we were completely surprised. And it’s the way MacKenzie Scott, you know was making her gifts was, she did all of the work in the background and the gift would come. And so when we heard about it, we were thrilled, absolutely thrilled. And it’s really opened so many doors for us. Not only has it been a huge vote of confidence in Landesa, but it’s really given us the opportunity to make investments in the organisation. All of those deferred maintenance things that any nonprofit has on the books, we’re able to address those and really turn ourselves into a stable, secure organisation that’s going to be healthy and effective in the long run and have the capacity to do the work that we need to do. It’s helping us to pay for that journey that I just described to you, about becoming a more global organisation. And it’s going to have impact. We think that by 2027, we’re going to help 400 million rural women realise the benefits of strength and land rights, which is not something we could have done it without it.

Ben Morton-Wright 24:51

And you can share with our audience how much the gift was, I know it’s in the public domain.

Mark Ruffo 24:54

It is, yeah, so it’s a $20 million gift, which you know, is larger than our annual budget.

Ben Morton-Wright 25:02

But for all the reasons that you’ve just outlined, I can see why a smart philanthropist would direct money towards you. And look at the output, look at the incredible impact that that is going to make. And unrestricted giving at all levels, but when we’re empowering organisations at that level, it shows real confidence in the organisation and what you’ve done in your history.

So I think that’s probably a nice way of wrapping this up, Mark. Absolute pleasure to talk to you as normal, a real insight, fascinating area, which I hope everyone has now gained a real insight into the importance of land reform, but also the importance of strategic philanthropy and organisations like yours getting those unrestricted gifts to really make a huge impact in so many of these vital areas across the world. So thank you for sharing your story, the Landesa story, and thank you for participating as part of the Global 20.

Mark Ruffo 25:49

Well, thank you for having me. And thank you for doing this, Ben. This is a really important series.