UW News

October 21, 2015

School of Law’s Roy Prosterman delighted by humanitarian award for agency he started half a century ago

UW News

Prof. Roy Prosterman. The organization he founded, Landesa, is recipient of the 2015 Hilton Humanitarian Award.

Roy Prosterman

Roy Prosterman, professor emeritus of the University of Washington School of Law, says he knew Landesa, the international land reform agency he founded a half century ago, had been considered before for the prestigious Hilton Humanitarian Prize, with its $2 million cash award.

“But I didn’t know that lightning was going to strike in 2015,” he said, clearly delighted.

This month the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation announced its choice of Landesa as the recipient of its 20th annual prize. The foundation gives the annual humanitarian award to recognize organizations that make extraordinary contributions to alleviating human suffering.

“It will be extremely helpful and will lead, I’m sure, to a great deal of coverage of land and the land issue,” Prosterman said. “The award itself will be unrestricted and so it will allow us to work in places where it might otherwise take an extended period of time to get funding earmarked to do it.”

Prosterman said he can still remember how it all began.

“It started with one of my law students coming to my office door and asking what I thought of a Pacific Law Review article, back in 1966 I think,” he said. “And he gave me an article titled ‘Land Reform in Latin America: The Uses of Confiscation.’

“As a law professor arguing for the use of various theories to basically grab the land and redistribute it, my reaction was, ‘Gee, this is really an important issue, this land issue. But if you go about solving it that way you’re more likely to wind up with civil war than you are with actual land reform with benefits for the poor and landless,'” Prosterman said.

“So if you’re serious about it, you’re going to have to design programs that include a reasonable measure of fair compensation for land that is to be redistributed. And you don’t want to treat it as any sort of judgment on the landowner.”

Thus was the Rural Development Institute born, which changed its name to Landesa in 2011.

“Landesa’s vision is a world free of extreme poverty — a vision made possible by securing land rights for some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people throughout the world,” said Steve Hilton, CEO and president of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. “We are proud to recognize Landesa for its dedication to lifting individuals, their families and entire communities out of poverty, and we know that the organization will put the Hilton Prize to good use.”

Judy Miller, foundation vice president and prize director, said, “In the world’s poorest rural societies, secure rights to land is everything. Land serves as a source of food, housing, income and credit, and it can empower both individuals and provide social status and influence.”

Landesa has worked in more than 50 countries in its 50 years. What country might this award send them to next? Prosterman had an answer ready.

“We’ve been saying for several years now that among the countries for which we keep our bags packed — in case they begin to look as though they’re interested in land reform — is Cuba.”

He said if Cuba’s leaders “suddenly announced tomorrow” they would decollectivize its agriculture, “we wouldn’t have to start scrambling to find funds to go and be working there — we’d have funds we could draw upon from one day to the next.”

There has been precedent for such changes, he said, in China, Vietnam and other “Marxist or at least nominally Marxist societies — centrally planned economies, or at least nominally centrally planned economies — which have indeed moved to individual long-term private rights to land.”

Prosterman admitted to being “somewhat flabbergasted” by the honor, but at 80, he has no plans to stop.

“Lord willing, I will keep at it as long as I am able to draw breath,” he said.


For more information about Landesa, contact Rena Singer, director of communications, at 206-257-6136 or renas@landesa.org.