Hernando de Soto's mistakes.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Jan. 29 2005 12:33 AM

The De Soto Delusion

Peruvian Economist Hernando de Soto's ideas for helping the poor have made him a global celebrity. Now, if only those ideas worked. …

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

It's Davos week, which means it's time for the world's most influential people to bask in the catchy wisdom of Hernando de Soto.

Author of The Mystery of Capitaland The Other Path, armchair consultant to numerous heads of state, and white knight for the cause of property formalization—Hernando de Soto is practically the patron saint of the global elite. At last year's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, Bill Clinton, the event's unofficial king, publicly declared that de Soto was "probably the world's most important living economist." For the left, de Soto has formulated the most seemingly practical ideas for reducing global poverty. For the right, de Soto offers the most compelling way to market capitalism to the poor.

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Beginning with his first projects in Peru in the mid-'90s, de Soto's ideas have been packaged and peddled all over the Third World—by the World Bank, by the U.S. Agency for International Development, and by de Soto's own Lima think tank, the Institute for Liberty and Democracy—as the new conventional wisdom for fighting poverty. On the white board, de Soto's ideas flatter the imaginations and sensibilities of Davos-types (particularly the American ones). But on the ground, it turns out that de Soto's ideas are doing very little to solve the actual problems of poor people.

De Soto's vision of the Third World is instinctively appealing. He sees industrious, entrepreneurial slum-dwellers, toiling with boundless ingenuity, yet living in homes and owning businesses that are theirs only by de facto possession and jury-rigged local agreements, not by de juredeed and title. De Soto calls all this informally held property "dead capital," because it can't be leveraged to produce growth—it can't be mortgaged, because it lacks a proper title to guarantee it as collateral. He says there are gobs and gobs of this dead stuff out there: $9.3 trillion worth, by his estimate, skulking in the ghetto.

Mindful of the fact that "the single most important source of funds for new businesses in the United States is a mortgage on the entrepreneur's house," de Soto's plan is, quite simply, to make homeowners out of the world's poor squatters. Neighborhood by neighborhood, slum by slum, he wants to formalize the vast extralegal world by dotting it with individual property titles. Once that's done, he promises, the poor will have access to credit, loans, and investment, as their dead assets are transformed—voilà!—into live capital.

De Soto is right to point out the importance of legally sorting out who owns what in the Third World. Secure property rights probably are indeed, as he puts it, the "hidden architecture" of modern economies—or something like that, anyway. On the level of gee-whiz metaphors and moving rhetoric, de Soto deserves a lot of credit: He's brought an unprecedented degree of attention and funding to the vital and fascinating issue of squatters and informal economies. But he has botched the details, especially by pushing one solution—individual property titles—for all different kinds of poor people in all different kinds of poor places.

From the field, the verdicts are rolling in: In some corners of the world, the land-titling programs inspired by de Soto's work are proving merely ineffective. In other places, they are showing themselves to be downright harmful to the poor people they set out to help.

First, the merely useless:

In various parts of the Third World, newly legalized squatters on the outskirts of cities are discovering that a property title supplies little of the benefit de Soto projects. Government studies out of de Soto's native Peru suggest that titles don't actually increase access to credit much after all. Out of the 200,313 Lima households awarded land titles in 1998 and 1999, only about 24 percent had gotten any kind of financing by 2002—and in that group, financing from private banks was almost nil. In other words, the only capital infusion—which was itself modest—was coming from the state.

Reports from Turkey, Mexico, South Africa, and Colombia suggest similar trends. "In Bogota's self-help settlements," writes Alan Gilbert, a London professor of geography who has done extensive research on land issues in Colombia and other parts of Latin America, "property titles seem to have brought neither a healthy housing market nor a regular supply of formal credit."

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