Why we should stop talking about ‘desertification’

Stop-le-desert

A great new book has just been published called ‘The End of Desertification? Disputing Environmental Change in the Drylands’, available at a shocking price from Springer. It is edited by two people who know a thing or two about these issues – Roy Behnke and Mike Mortimore – and it has 20 top quality chapters from all over the world, documenting why the term desertification has passed its sell-by date, if it ever had one at all. It is an impressive and timely synthesis, and I hope will become available in cheaper or free formats soon.

The myths of desertification have a long history. Ideas of desiccation and desert advance framed colonial science, informed by the narratives of the ‘dust bowl’ in the US. Yet whether from long-term environmental monitoring, areal and satellite photography, ecological modelling or local knowledge and field observation, the standard narratives have been found severely wanting. Unfortunately this accumulated evidence has been ignored, and the narratives of desertification persist. Why is this? As I discussed at the book launch event in London recently, we can get some insights from some reflection on the relationships between science and policy in this area – particularly in Africa – over the last 30-40 years.

Paradigm change

Within science, the debate has followed in many ways a classic Khunian cycle. A standard paradigm was challenged, a new paradigm proposed, and normal science then proceeded to test and nuance. In the 1970s, influenced by the new mathematics of complexity, ecologists such as Bob May argued that stability not an expected feature of ecosystems, even under deterministic conditions. In the context of African rangelands, Jim Ellis and team in Turkana – notably through the classic 1988 paper – contributed to an understanding of ecosystems not at equilibrium where density-independent factors (rainfall/drought/flood/snow) meant that animal populations were not at equilibrium, and different management regimes needed to apply.

Challenges to desertification myths, and simplistic equilibrium approaches to rangeland dynamics based on Clementsian succession ecology, have long been made. Jeremy Swift and Andrew Warren wrote classic papers in 1977 for the UN Conference on Desertification, but both were ignored. Stephen Sandford’s classic book of 1983 on pastoralism made many similar points, based on a mountain of evidence. The Woburn conferences in the early 1990s that I helped organise – and the two books that followed that I helped edit (here and here) – picked up on these findings and extended and expanded them, looking at the implications. A new paradigm for African rangeland management was born. African debates, we hoped, would become more compatible with mainstream ecology that had been around for several decades, and link to practice elsewhere – most notably in Australia.

This consolidation of empirical data within a new conceptual frame provoked lots of new work, and I don’t know how many PhDs and other studies have flowed from this. It also provoked inevitably some misunderstandings. For example, the assumption for example that all dryland systems were the same as Turkana (they are not – as I showed for Zimbabwe and Layne Coppock showed for Borana, in the Rangelands at Disequilibrium book); that in non-equilibrium systems degradation wouldn’t occur – of course it can, but in different ways. Others, such as Andrew Illius, helped introduce a more spatial perspective, highlighting the importance of patch dynamics in complex dryland ecosystems. Others extended and nuanced the argument, by integrating perspectives on animal and herder behaviour for example, as in Saverio Kratli’s impressive work in Niger. In the last decade, the science of remote sensing and GIS has enhanced spatial understandings of environmental change massively, reinforcing the argument against a linear view of desertification and a more dynamic view.

Susanne Vetter did a good job in summarising where the debate had got to by 2004. A more balanced view emerged – at least in the scientific community. This was ‘normal science’ in the Khunian sense and continues today. I get loads of papers to review that use the debate a starting point, and don’t have to go through the rigmarole of justifying the argument in the way we did in the 1993 Rangelands at Disequilibrium book.

Policy and institutional inertia and resistance

But the relationship between science and policy is not linear. If accumulated evidence had led to a transformation of paradigms, then surely policy and practice would follow suit? Well, no this is not how it happens! Evidence and policy, despite the rhetoric around evidence-based policymaking, are not neatly linked. Here the politics of knowledge and policy intervenes. Why is it that, even when scientific evidence is incontrovertible, then shifts in policy discourse and practice doesn’t happen? As always, in the debate about drylands in Africa we have to look at the intersections of discourse, actors, interests and politics – and so the politics of knowledge in policy. Here other forces are at play, beyond the slow accumulation of knowledge.

There were some in policy and practice circles who backed the non-equilibrium view, questioning the simplistic versions of desertification across the drylands. But this was sometimes a naïve advocacy for ‘indigenous’ systems – valorising transhumance or nomadism in a simplistic, romantic way. Ignoring challenges of land management, and inventing an ideal ‘tradition’, is not the answer.

Mainstream institutions and policy, while often playing lip service to changes in the growing critiques of the desertification framing, did not take the argument for rethinking on seriously. Paradigms may have shifted in science, but not in policy. Even today, it is amazing how often you see projects, documents, statements, plans repeating the same old story; as if debates in science over decades had never happened. Last month was ‘World Desertification Day’ held in Beijing when many speeches were made repeating old myths. Each time there is a Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Combatting Desertification, every government signatory, including Zimbabwe, has to trot out the arguments in its submission.

Why don’t things change?

In a commentary in the Living with Uncertainty book in 1994, Stephen Sandford said we would have to wait a generation for things to change (we have, and things still haven’t!). One reason is that a new ‘normal science’ only permeates through slowly via training, curriculum change and so on. Has this happened? I suspect not. My son just did A level biology – and he had to learn Clementsian succession by rote. I fear this is also the case in Africa. Incumbent power also resists change. This reflects the conservative nature of institutions and professions. While the science of rangelands has shifted, among field level departments, aid agencies, and their officials – old ideas stick. There is fast turnover of staff, poor resourcing, and institutional inertia and limited learning. A perennial pattern, perhaps especially in Africa.

But it’s not only inertia. There is also a more active politics of resistance. Take Ethiopia. Over the years, the policy documents framing pastoral development have changed. The well-funded Pastoral Community Development Project had a lot of the right rhetoric when it was established. It seemed to have taken on the new paradigm. But implemented by the Ministry of Federal Affairs, the programme has often focused on a programme of sedentarisation, fixed water points, and environmental measures to – you’ve guessed it – combat desertification. Threats of desertification and an old approach to dryland development align with Ethiopian state interests, making the drylands governable by a centralised state. When confronted – and I have been in several debates with high level officials on this programme – it’s defended essentially in political terms. Science is a long way from the discussion.

There is also the persistent and insidious power of incumbent institutions, hooked into a narrative that will not budge. In my view, one of the most mistaken moves in this field in the last 25 years was the creation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. As a concession to African states in the post-Rio deal, it has not had the traction of the conventions on biodiversity or climate change. The desertification narrative suited many purposes, and the critiques first raised in UN circles in 1977 were not heeded. The rhetoric is more sophisticated these days – participation, inclusion, cooperation, local knowledge and a wider view of land degradation are all part of the mix these days. But the fundamental frame remains – paradigm shifts do not shift UN bureaucracies, and too often resources are wasted and attention diverted from the real challenges of the drylands. Such organisations – and the UNCCD is not the only one – also become legitimators for science that has long been challenged. I don’t know how many comment pieces, policy briefs and communiques I receive that repeat those tired and long-disputed statistics of the areas of the world that are desertified or the amount of Africa that is suffering a nutrient deficit. Too often it’s spurious science and economics presented as fact, supporting a narrative that we thought had been dismissed decades ago.

Embracing uncertainty, working with variability

As science over many decades has shown, non-equilibrium ecology is a useful way of thinking about complex, highly variable dryland ecosystems – especially in the context of climate change. In particular, it provides a useful basis for challenging simplistic, linear desertification narratives. The key lesson is that there is no simple, standardised solution to dryland development, especially with fast-changing climatic, economic and political contexts – flexibility, agility and adaptive management is key. It is not amenable to a standard, control-oriented technocratic response. Just as the science has undergone a paradigm shift, so must policy and practice.  Of course wider contexts matter too. An ecologically-determinist view is inadequate – land tenure, administrative systems, investment regimes, and political economy contexts are vital. Since the non-equilibrium ecology challenge of the early 1990s, the contexts of Africa’s pastoral drylands have changed dramatically. Land grabs, privatisation and enclosure, settlement and the growth of towns, and changing commercial economies in the drylands have had a huge impact. Non-equilibrium ecology will not provide the answer, just a pointer. A wider engagement with political economy is necessary too.

Particularly worrying in the last ten years has been how the desertification narrative has been reinforced by debates about climate change. Again, against much evidence, climate change is simply taken to mean a secular shift, and so increasing desiccation, leading to land degradation and desertification. In fact, much climate science points to processes of increasing variability and uncertainty, not secular change. The satellite image data shows ‘deserts’ expanding and contracting over time in a complex patchwork, and not simply advancing. A focus on non-equilibrium, dynamic systems points to a different response – one centred on flexibility, adaptive management, responsive care and resilience, not control and technocratic intervention. The desertification narrative promotes a control-oriented response – with destocking, ‘green belts’, forest planting and engineering solutions dominating – rather than one that embraces uncertainty, and makes productive use of variability, as in the non-equilibrium paradigm. But of course realising the alternative paradigm is difficult. Institutional biases, procedures and routines reinforce control, especially when funding agencies and governments have fewer and fewer people in the field, connecting with the real world of the drylands. Funding flows, metrics, goals and targets just add to this, and I fear that both large-scale climate finance and the framing of the SDG goal 15 will only compound the problem.

The end of desertification?

So will this book make a difference? Is this the end of desertification talk? I hope so. But I also doubt it, unless it is more fundamentally connected to a political project of shifting the underlying politics of knowledge and practice that underpin the desertification narrative. Evidence as we’ve seen is not enough. We have to expose powerful people and institutions; we have to refuse to engage with organisations that promote inappropriate models of dryland development, and challenge them forcefully at every turn. I recommend a Tumblr site dedicated to ‘desertification nonsense’ that exposes organisations, governments, aid agencies and others (rather like the one exposing all-male panels, where the potential thumbs up from David Hasselhoff aims to encourage any workshop or conference organiser to change their plans). More positively, we have to develop, share and promote the new narrative – translating the science of 25 years or more into new ways of doing things. We have to focus more on training and curriculum change, and shift perspectives across generations. And we have to engage all these people still stuck in the old paradigm in our research, and avoid the perennial danger of the academic/research bubble, where paradigms change, but don’t make a difference.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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#Hashtag activism: will it make a difference in Zimbabwe?

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Over the last few months a new type of politics has been brewing in Zimbabwe. Fed up with the mainstream parties, people have been taking to social media to express their demands. The most prominent has been the #ThisFlag movement, adopting the national flag as the symbol to rally around.

Led by a pastor – Evan Mawarire – it has generated massive interest, both in Zimbabwe and in the diaspora, and resulted in a successful stay-away in early July. Other movements, linked by social media, include: Occupy Africa Unity Square and Tajamuka/Sesjikile, as well as numerous bloggers, Twitter commentators, Youtube channels and Facebook accounts. Will this make a difference?

Some say this is the start of a ‘Zimbabwean spring’, echoing the movements that toppled governments in the Arab world a few years ago. But we need to be cautious about such parallels. There have been some excellent, reflective commentaries on this emerging phenomenon from Alex Magaisa, Miles Tendi and Brian Raftopolous in recent weeks. Let me highlight some key points made.

Genuine grievances are being expressed as the economy nosedives

Corruption, repression and lack of economic opportunity certainly are real concerns in Zimbabwe today, particularly among youth and urbanites. The riots discussed last week were an expression of this among vendors, taxi operators and others working hard to make a living in the ‘informal economy’

On Twitter, the core demands are stated, thus: “#ThisFlag will continue to be a civil rights movement driven by its citizens against: Poverty, Injustice, Corruption”. Most would sign up to this. But how does it translate into a political project, beyond the demands? This requires reaching out to wider constituencies.

This is an urban phenomenon, but Zimbabwe is largely rural

Only 34 percent of Zimbabwe’s population is classified as urban by the World Bank. This is far less than say Tunisia where the Arab spring started, where 68 percent is urban. This makes a big difference, as Twitter, Facebook and other social media are not active in many rural areas. People are of course engaging through multiple routes, and Whatsapp connections reach further. But most activists live in the major towns and are young, and hashtag activism doesn’t reach older generations, or people in rural areas where the majority live.

Rural people certainly have grievances against the government, but they are different. Many got land during the land reform, but they want state support to help make their farms productive and their rural economies grow. These are different demands, and different people; coalitions across the whole electorate will be vital in any future election. ZANU-PF, by both fair and foul means, have been past masters at assuring a vote.

The commentaries make this point, but only in passing. Miles Tendi asks: “where are the voices of Zimbabwe’s rural youth, who despite their numerical majority, have played a marginal role in online activism? Alex Magaisa comments: “The new citizens’ movement which has made waves in recent weeks has been concentrated in the urban areas. In this regard therefore, it is not very different from the traditional political opposition and organised civil society.”

To my mind this is the crucial issue, meaning this will remain a protest movement, but not one that brings change, unless wider alliances are built and a rural agenda is forged – something that opposition groupings coming from trade union backgrounds have singularly failed to do in the past. A failure to engage with rural politics by the urban and diaspora commentariat along with activist organisers is a big mistake.

If hashtag activism is not linked to civic movements and structures on the ground it will not result in change

Raftopolous comments on the new type of politics: “This movement is different to earlier forms of civic activism in a number of ways. First, it does not appear to be driven by any particular political party. Second, since the demise of the structures of the labour movement in the first decade of the 2000s, the forms of organisation in the informal sector have become much more fluid. The result is that this form of activism is more difficult for the state to track, but it also makes such interventions more fragile and more difficult to sustain. Third, the modality of protest appears to have drawn from forms used in South African protest movements. These include the burning of buildings, such as the torching of the Zimbabwe Revenue Service building at the Beitbridge border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, and the burning of tyres in the streets”.

Raftopolous argues that we may be witnessing “a change in the idea of citizenship” in Zimbabwe, as new people engage in politics. But Tendi argues, “These predictions of Mugabe’s imminent downfall are wrong….. social media activism can never substitute for organized political activity on the ground”. He continues: “it is not enough for Zimbabwe’s urban youth to simply oppose the status quo through social media. Let’s say that a successful youth uprising were to remove Mugabe from power tomorrow: Who would take over in his wake? What sort of political and economic agenda would this new leader have? Most of Zimbabwe’s social media activists have yet to give lucid answers to these important questions, while the few who do are plagued by a lack of consensus about who would lead a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe and what that leadership’s agenda should be….If social media activists want to make a successful contribution to political change in Zimbabwe, they need to work in sync with traditional civil society groups and, crucially, effective opposition political parties”.

The problem, as Alex Magaisa, comments is that opposition parties are not effective, and civic movements are poorly funded and have over the years fallen into “the rigid confines of donor-demarcated programmes”.

The opposition parties are in turmoil

Alex Magaisa’s always-informative Big Saturday Read this week has dissected the recent announcements of the MDC-T president, Morgan Tsvangarai, with two additional vice-presidents appointed in the party. This was spun as preparing for the next election, but does it represent an attempt to control an unseemly succession struggle, or a clever route to cooption of different factions? Tsvangirai has revealed that he has colon cancer, so the party requires a new strategy. A recent statement tried to link itself to the #ThisFlag movement, but the connections through to local party structures are not clear. The wider movement has a broad political base, rooted in disaffection with the status quo, rather than any particular party loyalty, so it may be difficult to connect new citizen activism to opposition politics and votes.

Repression and control of social media and protest is likely

ZANU-PF has always been effective at suppressing dissent, both within the party and within the country. It has used violent means in the past, and will do so again. And of course there’s tweeter-in-chief, Prof. Jonathan Moyo MP, Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development, with an impressive 78k followers. Cyber security has risen up the agenda, and there will be attempts to monitor and restrict social media for sure. The Central Intelligence Organisation has had much advice from Israel and others, and blocking online activism is certainly possible.

As Magaisa argues: “We are likely to see more arrests of activists in the citizens’ movement. Ordinary members of the public will also be arrested and prosecuted as examples to others. There will also be new laws to criminalise conduct on social media and other similar spaces. There will be further statements and warnings from the coercive elements of the state, all designed to deter and scare people from using social media to challenge government. In this regard, the citizens’ movement will find that its struggle is really not very different from the struggle which the traditional opposition parties and organized civil society have faced in the past. The question is whether this new citizens’ movement has devised new tools to overcome or get around these impediments”.

Key to the unfolding story, as Tendi explains, will be the role of the military. Also divided but held in check by webs of patronage and control, if any group breaks loose, then the dynamic changes immediately. Not paying the army on time is clearly unwise. But as Tendi says the hashtag activists have no route into these military-security networks, and have paid such issues little thought, a “fateful omission”, he argues. He explains, “Mugabe maintains his hold on power largely because of the army’s internal divisions, particularly among the senior officers….. He has also used the intelligence services to sow divisions and maintain surveillance among the generals. Unless Mugabe’s opponents can develop a strategy to bring a decisive majority of senior military officers over to their side, even the most effective social media campaign will be for naught”.

Looking forward

Tendi concludes his Foreign Affairs piece, looking forward: “Young people, urban and rural, do not seem to be discussing among themselves whom they should support in the 2018 election, or what sort of political and economic agenda they want to see for their country. What Zimbabwe needs now, most of all, is a well-thought-out and pragmatic approach to the 2018 election — one that will unite civil society, the opposition parties, online activists, and urban and rural youth. That is the key to finding a new path ahead”.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

 

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Riots in Zimbabwe: don’t mess with the informal sector

zimra-warehouse-on-fire

In the last few weeks there have been riots in Zimbabwe. In Beitbridge, on the border with South Africa, furious cross-border traders set fire to a warehouse in protest at import bans recently imposed, while in Harare taxi operators protested against the cost of continuous police road blocks, where spot fines are extracted.

Both these incidents highlight how Zimbabwe’s economy has changed dramatically, and why the state has to accommodate, encourage and support the informal sector, not control, suppress and ignore it. Formal unemployment runs at 90 percent or more, but this doesn’t mean that all these people are not doing things. They are, but not in the jobs of the past. Livelihoods are improvised and flexible, combining ways of earning income – farming, trading, dealing, manufacturing, mining, selling services and a host of other distributive activities, reliant on deeply embedded social relationships. New networks of economic activity have emerged, as has a vibrant spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. This is in the context of extreme hardship for sure, as the economy continues to plummet due to lack of investment. Informal economies are built on relations. Many operating in the informal sector are reliant on patrons and support from others; sometimes this is through relations of kinship, or through the church, and very often political patronage plays a part. If you want to secure a spot to trade in town, someone inevitably has to be paid off. Informal activity is tough, precarious fragile, sometimes illegal, and often is subject to arbitrary taxation from those in authority – as in the case of the road blocks affecting informal transport operators across the country.

The informalisation of the economy is a pattern across Africa, as James Ferguson eloquently describes. The improvised livelihoods of the poor are creating a new distributive economy, and with this a distributive politics, he argues. This is having a major impact on the way we understand African political economy – and not only in Zimbabwe. The shock is perhaps greater in Zimbabwe, as in the past the ‘formal’ sector was larger and stable, where ‘jobs’ and ‘wages’ were expected, especially for men at a certain age. But the post-structural adjustment growth of informality is a phenomenon everywhere; and is accelerating, especially in countries where reliance on a core commodity sector was the economy of the past.

Thus the informal sector – a huge and massively varied category – represents a very substantial proportion of Africa’s economic activity. In the rural areas this has always been the case – small-scale farming dominates and rural dwellers have always engaged in a bricolage of activities, both on and off farm. Today such complex livelihoods are the norm in town too. The jobs of the past – in the factories, mines, farms and so on- no longer exist – or may do so only temporarily – and the alternative is a set of activities that don’t fit the past expectation of a ‘job’ or ‘employment’, and are so not counted as such.

In Zimbabwe, the informal sector is the economy today: it cannot be ignored, wished away. It is what the 90 percent live on, but we know little about it, and policies often upset and disrupt, rather than support and nurture. So it is no surprise that the arbitrary import controls imposed were resisted when the blunt Statutory Instrument 64 that appeared to ban the import of everything from mayonnaise and coffee creamer to body lotion and building materials – was imposed (although hurriedly amended later). In the name of domestic manufacturing protection, the livelihoods of many thousands of traders who bring goods from South Africa were affected; no wonder they were angry.

Ever since Keith Hart wrote about Africa’s informal economy long ago, many people have pointed to its importance. In recent years, there has been a growth in scholarship that has attempted to grapple with the economic, social, cultural, political and geographical dimensions of informal economies, such as the excellent work of Kate Meagher in Nigeria and more broadly. But in public policy, statistical data collection and media commentary, the new real economy in so many places has been ignored, or dismissed and berated. Responses have been inappropriate too. Formalising the informal is not the point, and attempts at converting everything into a projectified ‘small enterprise’ are misguided. Controlling and regulating will not work, and will be resisted, sometimes violently. And yes, while much activity is outside the ambit of the state, and not taxable, it is the lifeblood of the economy – and certainly is in Zimbabwe. Yet glorifying and romanticising the informal is not the solution either. Living in the informal sphere is tough – incomes are small and highly variable, and the costs of patronage, coercion and control can be high, economically and psychologically.

The events of the last few weeks in Zimbabwe point to the need for a new accommodation between the informal and formal and between the economies and livelihoods of the 90 percent and the state. A new political economy is emerging, where the class relations of the past are no longer relevant, and state-economy-citizen relations must be rethought. Rather than imagining the informal economy as somehow outside, and needing to be brought in, it has to be thought of as central to development. Providing support, generating legitimacy, assuring accountability and preventing exploitative predatory, patronage relations are all roles for the state; ones that the Zimbabwean state is failing on currently. This means attempts at controlling, regulating and incorporating have to be avoided, despite the knee-jerk temptations. These are the key lessons from rioting in Beitbridge and Harare. The 90 percent after all are the electorate, and will protest in many ways if livelihoods in increasingly difficult circumstances are jeopardised.

This does not mean that attempts to rebuild the formal sector should cease. Far from it. Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa was in London making that case for Zimbabwe last week to the usual howls of protest. But the refinancing that will hopefully flow from the International Financial Institutions and other private investors will need to find its way to the new economy, and not just prop up the old. For in the longer term, it is the informal entrepreneur, the niche market trader, the small-scale artisan and manufacturer and the smallholder farmer who will scale up and multiply the massive, but uncounted and perennially unsupported informal economy; in time graduating into larger businesses and operations that become increasingly formal.

Managing and supporting such a transition is the central economic challenge of the future. The standard models and forms of expertise derived from the old economy are inadequate: a new politics and economy of the informal urgently needs inventing.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

July 13 update: Debby Potts from King’s College London who, with UZ colleagues, has researched urban Zimbabwe over a long time, correctly pointed out that this piece did not reference the longstanding and excellent work on urban informality in Zimbabwe, which makes most of the same points. She has kindly provided a reference list for those interested in digging into the debate further.

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Why is IDS a special institution?

ids timeline

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. I have been working here for a shocking 40% of this time, and in the week of a major anniversary conference, I thought I should jot a few thoughts down on why IDS has been and remains special.

In 1966, the Institute was founded with Dudley Seers as the first director. It was designated a ‘special institution’ by the UK government, with a particular mandate for research and training. In the period following the end of colonialism, Britain had a special role and needed a special institution. The project of ‘development’ in the ‘Third World’ back then was not supposed to last 50 years. But today with a different focus and new challenges the need for critical, engaged research and training is needed perhaps even more than ever.

Critical traditions

But what for me is special, and why have I remained committed to IDS for now more than 20 years? There have been many tributes, reflections and summary histories offered, but none for me capture the importance of IDS’ radical, critical traditions: the ability to challenge orthodoxies, to speak truth to power, and to translate this into action. Being neither a purely academic institution, nor a NGO or think tank, but a hybrid, not fettered by the constraints and limitations of either, is very important. It can be uncomfortable; but that’s the point.

When I first came to IDS in 1995, there was always a classic set-piece debate between Michael Lipton and Robert Chambers at the beginning of each academic year. They represented two different views on development, held productively in tension. Of course they agreed more than the performance suggested, but it was a useful highlight of how a common normative commitment to progressive change could be looked at through very different lenses: between top-down and bottom-up, between macro-structural and micro-people focused analyses, between economics and wider social sciences, and so on. Using diverse approaches, encapsulated in the 1993 classic, States and Markets, IDS research over many years has challenged what became the dominant neoliberal paradigm, encapsulated in its most extreme ideological form by the ‘Washington Consensus’.

In the last 20 years, these debates have continued in different forms. There have been many excellent contributions that have taken the stance represented more by the Lipton side of the debate – from looking at industrial clusters and value chains to the economic role of the rising powers – as well as many that have emphasised more the Chambers-type perspectives – including the on-going work on participation, citizenship and popular politics.

But actually the most challenging contributions have been when such perspectives have been in dialogue. This is only possible in a cross-disciplinary institution, where the drag of narrow disciplinary specialisms – and the horrific metric-dominated assessment approaches that go with this today – do not limit interaction and creativity. Let me highlight a few of these areas (of many), where I think IDS work (and crucially that of its global network of partners) has been especially exciting.

Livelihoods

One area that I have been fairly centrally involved in, and I think is quintessentially IDS, is work on livelihoods. Indeed with both Chambers and Lipton involved, this was from the beginning a syncretic endeavour. When I produced the 1998 IDS Working Paper on the sustainable livelihoods framework, both reviewed it. And indeed the framework – with its long back history involving many people from Jeremy Swift to Susanna Moorhead to Richard Longhurst, among others – was the result of just these conversations: an approach explicitly aimed at involving economists, yet not forgetting the social, political and institutional. More recently I have reflected on the limitations, particularly as applied in development practice, and argued for a more structural, political economy perspective as central to livelihoods approaches.

States and citizens

This tension between wider structural, political-economic analysis and more locality-focused, participatory understandings was perhaps best illustrated during the 2000s when IDS hosted two of the early DFID Development Research Centres – one on the state and one on citizenship, led by two formidable political scientists – Mick Moore and John Gaventa. With IDS by then exclusively reliant on external, tied support from different donors, inevitably projects had to respond to the contours of the funding environment, and this slightly odd division reflected that in DFID at the time. But hosted within one institution it allowed for a productive, if at times tetchy, debate. Does citizen action construct states, or do states construct citizens? And what do states and citizens constitute anyway? Both centres provided an important challenge, once again, to the neoliberal versions being touted elsewhere.

Gender and empowerment

Work on gender empowerment has been a central feature of work at IDS and Sussex since the 1970s, and the classic contributions of Kate Young and Annie Whitehead. Naila Kabeer, Anne Marie Goetz, Andrea Cornwall and many others followed the tradition, offering challenging scholarship rooted in real struggles. But here too the important tension between structural change versus collective organisation from below played out again. In feminist analyses of course the personal is always political – and vice versa. However in discussions of ‘empowerment’ we see different strands, ranging from those focusing on economic empowerment and formal rights, versus those emphasising individual agency, the politics of the body and sexuality. Debating these dimensions has been a massively important contribution.

The politics of knowledge

Whether taking a more structural view or one more focused on individual or collective agency, knowledge framings matter. The politics of knowledge has been especially emphasised in IDS work on the environment, which really took off in a big way from the early 1990s. As Robert Chambers memorably asked: whose reality counts? The now classic 1996 book, The Lie of the Land, edited by Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns, asked why it was that so often environmental management and policy in Africa – from the colonial era to the present – does not respond to realities on the ground, and systematically ignores local knowledges. The answer of course is politics – and how experts, embedded in institutions, understand the world.

Environment and sustainability

This theme of the politics of the policy process has been a central theme of IDS work on environment and resources over 20 years. Building on strong connections with IDS’ sister institution at Sussex, the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), also celebrating 50 years this year, we jointly launched the STEPS Centre in 2006, with ESRC funds, and with Melissa Leach and Andy Stirling I have had the privilege of jointly directing the Centre since then. Here a highly productive synergy between the concerns of development studies and science and technology studies has unfolded over the past decade. With knowledge, politics, and power central, we too have struggled with understanding ‘pathways to sustainability’ that at once capture the relational agency of diverse actors and the wider conditioning effects of political economy. Once again a cross-disciplinary engagement has been absolutely essential –and immensely exciting, intellectually and practically.

Making a difference

None of these research efforts, often lasting long periods, with multiple funders, and diverse research teams at Sussex and beyond, is aimed solely at producing outputs from esteemed academic journals (although there have been plenty of these). All IDS researchers are committed to change: generating ideas to make a difference. In the world of often pointless impact case studies and metrics this may sound glib; but political engagement matters not just to analysis, but also to practice.

The first two images of the official but rather selective IDS 50th anniversary timeline are one of Stanmer House, a very English country house in the South Downs, near the campus of the University of Sussex where IDS was first based, and a Warhol-esque picture of Chairman Mao. It is these sort of contrasts, tensions and yes contradictions that keeps IDS on its toes, and makes it, despite the funding pressures, an exciting place to work – and really does make IDS a special institution.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

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What will Brexit mean for Africa?

June 23rd saw the UK vote for Brexit. A populist rebellion was provoked by an internal dispute in the Tory party, and chaos has been unleashed. We don’t know the full consequences yet, but it’s not going to be good.

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Commentaries before the vote speculated on implications. First there’s trade. The UK is an important trading partner with Africa, and deals with the EU govern much of this. Only this month an EU Economic Partnership Agreement was agreed with the Southern African Development Community, allowing free trade access to Europe for some countries. Now all these arrangements have to be renegotiated bilaterally through the World Trade Organisation, and its 161 members. It will be a slow and costly readjustment, creating much uncertainty. Baffled by this madness, Chinese official commentary put in nicely: Britons were “showing a losing mindset” and becoming “citizens of a nation that prefers to shut itself from the outside world”.

Then there is aid. The UK has been a substantial contributor to the EU aid programme, providing 2 billion euros, including 14.8% of the European Development Fund. While I would be the first to admit that not all of this was effective or efficient, it does allow a broader mandate than the increasingly narrow focus of the UK aid spend. And the UK influence on the portfolio has always been important.

But perhaps more important than the flows of cash is the influence of the UK on European development debates. Whether the UK government or NGOs, think tanks or research institutes, adding to the discussion about, for example, the impact of EU domestic farm subsidies on African agriculture, or providing input into the framing of development efforts, has been really important. This has been particularly so since the establishment of the UK Department of International Development in 1997 and the G8 Gleneagles agreement in 2005, and a commitment – amazingly across governments of different political hues – to a progressive aid agenda, particularly in Africa. This role in European positioning globally will be much missed.

The Brexit campaigners argued for ‘taking back control’ of aid and trade. But in a globalised world, this small island mentality is absurd. Britain thankfully no longer rules the waves, nor has vast swathes of the globe as colonies under its control. But sometimes the rhetoric suggests we do – or should do. This is of course naïve and arrogant, and betrays an extraordinary lack of understanding of contemporary global political economy.

The UK’s diplomatic ‘soft power’ has been often exercised most successfully through the EU, as part of a joint commitment to change – whether around issues of conflict, migration or development. This allowed a common voice, and a more measured position. This was certainly the case in Zimbabwe. With, until recently, serial failures of UK diplomacy, the EU has provided a useful bridge and a more effective approach to engagement, through a succession of EU ambassadors to the country, who did not carry the colonial baggage of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This will be sorely missed, and not only in Zimbabwe.

The UK voters who pushed for Brexit were worried about jobs, livelihoods and immigration. Those who will lead the country as result do not have these concerns at the centre of their agenda. They have a vision of free trade and further economic liberalisation: exactly the processes that will undermine yet further the poor and marginalised who voted to leave. This is the tragic contradiction of the ‘democratic’ result, and will lead to more strife into the future.

A cross-party and sustained commitment to internationalism, social democratic freedoms, human rights and inclusive global development, as enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals, may not survive this sea-change in political fortunes in the UK. The racist slogans and posters and the narrow nationalism that dominated the campaign reveal an uglier side to British (perhaps English) politics; most shockingly shown in the political murder of MP Jo Cox – a passionate campaigner for more progressive views on social justice and development.

Who takes over in the UK following the resignation of the PM, David Cameron, really matters. Not just in the UK, but in Africa too. At the last election in 2015, I argued on this blog that we should “be scared, very scared” about the prospect of a shift at the top of the Tory party. Now this is certain, everyone should be very worried indeed. We don’t yet even know the candidates, but the political opportunist Boris Johnson is at the head of the race.

Johnson’s attitudes to Africa can only be described as backward and colonial. His slur on Barack Obama revealed much. His tales of his holiday in Tanzania frame Africa as a last wilderness, threatened by growing African populations, and could have come from a colonial explorer from the nineteenth century. His rants on Zimbabwe betray a shallow understanding of history and politics, and as one commentator described it, an “obnoxious and overbearing British imperialist mentality”. His close links with a certain section of the UK political elite (many in the House of Lords), who have consistently prevented a sensible debate on Britain’s relationship with Zimbabwe, show his political prejudices. It is not good news.

With the pound collapsing, remittances to Zimbabwe will be more expensive for the diaspora, and the prospects of investment will decline. The chaos in the global markets provoked by this crazy populism will take time to stabilise, and will affect the poorest more than the rich. And the nasty side of British politics, rejecting a progressive internationalism, will undermine the UK’s standing in the world. We all will be poorer because of Brexit, including in Africa.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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How the Sustainable Development Goals can open up political space for transformative development

When the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed last September, there was much expectation about how they could help get sustainability back on the development agenda, and push the international community to develop new approaches to development. A declaration, covering both north and south, sought to identify a new era for development that was universal, indivisible and radical. As the slogan went, ‘no-one was to be left behind’. The old aid focused, post-colonial MDGs were a thing of the past we hoped, and a new political space was to be opened up.

Yet since then the excitement has somewhat waned. There have been other things on the agenda. A migrant crisis in Europe, continued terror attacks around the world and economic slump that has precipitated an economic crisis in commodity-dependent countries from Brazil to Zambia. Various SDG events now barely get a mention in the press. Meanwhile many seem to be spending a lot of time on the multiple goals and targets, and still bickering about what is in and out.

As I argued back in September, the potential for the SDGs is less the bureaucratic process of ticking boxes against targets, but more the political opportunity to open up a discussion about the directions for development, and how sustainability and development can be realised together. Last week the Independent Expert Group on Least Developed Countries, the STEPS Centre and IIED convened a high-level dialogue in London to discuss progress on implementation of the SDGs, and to reinject some of the earlier excitement, urgency and political debate that motivated people to sign up in the first place.

Transformations to sustainability and development is mostly about politics, as we explored in a  recent STEPS book on the politics of ‘green transformations’. It means having searching debates about visions and directions, confronting incumbent power head on, and creating a transformative politics, rooted in alliances between players – across states, businesses, civil society and more. Transformations to sustainability will not emerge from goals and targets, but fundamental political change, combined with new thinking and wide mobilisation.

The Least Developed Countries are some of the poorest in the world. They have been subject to decades of underdevelopment, both in the colonial and development eras. Many are highly dependent on external support, and inequalities and deep poverty undermine opportunities for sustainable development. But the SDGs can also offer hope. They offer a key moment for recasting the debate, providing what the event’s keynote speaker, Dipak Gyawali, calls a ‘toad’s eye view‘ – one rooted in local conditions, contexts and coalitions. The political space that has opened up with the SDGs for a new debate on sustainable development, must start with casting off the standard routines of development. It must avoid at all costs getting stuck in a techno-managerialist trap, one caught up in the audit culture of targets and goals, that so constrained the post Rio and MDG attempts at creating sustainable development.

Instead, building from the ground up means generating new futures that are not stuck in the past. In part because of the history of underdevelopment in LDCs, such countries can imagine new directions for development that are not so constrained by existing infrastructures and embedded patterns of consumption and development, as exist in the global north and the new ‘rising powers’. Instead, low carbon energy systems can be generated, for example, using the best of modern technology such as in decentralised solar systems. Without carbon intensive infrastructures and political powerful industrial interests, LDCs can leapfrog, creating new development paths for a low carbon energy transition. The same can be the case for agriculture, water resources, housing and other forms of infrastructure. This can be good for jobs, livelihoods and the environment.

Through the SDGs, development can be reimagined fundamentally, and LDCs can lead the way. But LDCs must not use ‘developed’ or ‘rising power’ countries as the model – this is failed, unsustainable development that must be rethought fundamentally. Innovations for sustainable development must start afresh, and aid and development support completely rethought. A few years ago, the STEPS New Manifesto on innovation, sustainability and development offered some ideas on ways forward for opening up the SDGs to more radical, transformatory pathways for sustainable development. We must start now with an engaged political debate that discusses each of the 3Ds. We need to discuss the Directions for development, the Distribution of benefits within and between countries, and the Diversity of choice in development options, technologies and infrastructures.

Our London meeting began to map out some of these ideas, with contributions from countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Nepal and Senegal.  A clear message once again was that the SDGs need to become more political.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland. Other versions appeared on the Huffington Post and the STEPS Centre blog

 

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Why 50-60 million hectares should be transferred to smallholders in South Africa’s land reform

Conversation image

Following on from last week’s blog on the N7 farmers from Malmesbury, this week I want to feature an excellent article by Ben Cousins from PLAAS in South Africa published recently in The Conversation. It picks up on the theme of the potential for capitalised, market-oriented smallholders to transform South Africa’s land reform strategy. Controversially he suggests that there are perhaps 50-60 million hectares available for such smallholder-led land reform. Here’s the blog:

Why South Africa needs fresh ideas to make land reform a reality

What is going wrong in South Africa’s land reform programme, and how can its failings be addressed?

In 22 years land reform has barely altered the agrarian structure of South Africa, and has had only minor effects on rural livelihoods.

Partly unintentionally, partly by design, land reform has been captured by elites. The most powerful voices are those of traditional leaders, so-called “emerging” black capitalist farmers (who often own other businesses), consultants, agri-business companies and white farmers.

The strategic thrust of South Africa’s land reform remains unclear. Agricultural and land policies have not been linked effectively. Little support has been provided to black smallholder farmers and no land reform farms have been officially sub-divided.

The lay of the land

The agricultural potential of South Africa is limited, with relatively little of its surface area suitable for crop production. Much of the country is arid or semi-arid, with only 28% of the land surface receiving 600mm or more of rain per annum. Most land is suitable only for extensive livestock production. Only 16.7 million hectares (13.7%) are arable, and 1.3 million hectares are irrigated.

Since 1994, about eight million hectares of the total of 86 million hectares of white-owned farmland have been transferred to black South Africans through land restitution and redistribution. Government’s initial target in 1994 was to transfer 30% of agricultural land by 1999, but slow progress led to the target date being moved to 2014. Several thousand large rural restitution claims are yet to be resolved, and about 20,000 settled restitution claims have yet to be implemented. Amendments to the law in 2014 allow hundreds of thousands of new claims to be lodged up until 2019.

Evidence suggests that about half of rural land reform projects have brought improvements in the livelihoods of beneficiaries – but often these are quite limited. It is unclear how many recorded “beneficiaries” still reside on or use transferred land, or benefit from land reform in any way. Evidence from the Limpopo province suggests that only a relatively small proportion do so.

Institutions such as communal property associations and trusts, through which land reform beneficiaries hold land in common, remain poorly supported and are often dysfunctional. Joint ventures between claimant communities and private-sector partners have experienced major problems.

Tenure reform has largely failed. Farm owners have worked out how to evict unwanted workers within the parameters of the law, or to (illegally) “buy out” their rights, and have done so in large numbers. In communal areas, the only legislation that secures the land rights of residents is the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act of 1996. This has had to be renewed every year. There are increasing reports of corruption by traditional leaders in areas with minerals.

Many of the assumptions informing policy are highly problematic. A large-scale commercial farm model informs assessments of “viability” and shackles thinking about how to support smallholders. Rural households are often seen as a homogeneous category, but are in fact highly differentiated. As a result, targeting of land reform is ineffective.

Measures to promote the informal economy, including markets for food, are absent. Land reform focuses mainly on rural areas but urbanisation and growth of informal settlements, some on communal land in peri-urban areas, mean that many key needs and opportunities are missed. A key spatial focus for smallholder-oriented land reform could be redistribution near to towns and cities, close to growing urban informal food markets.

Re-invigorating land reform

Land reform needs to make a fresh start. Realistically, land and agrarian reform is unlikely to reduce the poverty of most rural people. The creation of formal-sector jobs and non-farm livelihood opportunities for the majority of the population should be at the centre of poverty reduction policies. And a re-invigorated programme of land reform could probably create a million new employment opportunities, as the National Development Plan suggests.

Reconfiguring the country’s agrarian structure should be the main thrust of land and agricultural policy, along with measures to improve the food security of the poor. However, securing tenure rights should remain a key objective of land reform, in urban as well as rural areas.

A competitive and increasingly concentrated agricultural economy has shaken out a large number of white farmers. However, about 70%-80% of farms produce only 20%-30% of value, and many of these are under stress from the current drought. This land could be acquired for redistribution relatively cheaply. The top 20%-30% of producers, 7,000 highly capitalised farming operations on about 20 million-30 million hectares, could then be left alone for two decades or so. This will ensure that land and agrarian reform does not put urban food security and agricultural exports at risk.

The land of the other 70%-80% of farming units, located on 50 million-60 million hectares, should be redistributed to 200,000 market-oriented black smallholder farmers. These farmers are often highly productive, despite the lack of real support offered to them. Policies should aim to support a process of broad-based “accumulation from below”, in which access to more land and water, plus well-designed support programmes, provide a platform for increasing levels of output.

The proposal in the National Development Plan that more land be brought under irrigation needs to be urgently investigated, and a realistic target set. This will help adaptation to climate change.

Municipalities should support informal markets where most of the produce by small black farmers is sold.
Reuters/Rogan Ward

Black smallholder farmers currently tend to supply informal traders and loose value chains that have less demanding requirements for fresh produce than those of supermarket chains and formal markets. Informal markets should be actively supported by municipalities. As their farms become more capitalised, some small-scale producers will improve the quality of their produce and begin to supply formal markets, and government could consider requiring supermarkets to meet quotas for smallholder produce.

The politics of land

Political rhetoric on land draws on a narrative in which white farmers and foreigners are villains, black South Africans are victims, and government (or an opposition party, or civil society activists) are heroes riding to the rescue. A political imaginary centred on race tends to dominate land discourse. For many young activists today, “land” seems to connote the nation, sovereignty and control of the economy as a whole, rather than a resource used for food production. The dual meanings of “land” in English elide the difference, but in nationalist and populist discourses such elisions help to mobilise supporters.

The current drought and rising food prices remind South Africans that the practical challenges of land reform are immense. How can the country re-organise the rural economy so that we achieve social justice, and at the same time feed growing numbers of urban residents at affordable prices? However valid the call for a fundamental rethink of the post-apartheid political order, this challenge cannot be ducked.

This article draws on a paper commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

The Conversation

Ben Cousins, Professor, Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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