In case you haven’t been keeping up with all the posts on this blog, here’s a list of the top 20 in the past year in terms of numbers of views. I am away on holiday for a couple of weeks, but check in soon for more posts. And don’t forget to sign up for the weekly post to be sent to your email address. Or if it’s your thing, follow @ianscoones on Twitter for auto alerts. Thanks for reading. There’s now over 200 posts on the site, and in the last year there were nearly 50k views, on a huge array of topics.
These lines come from a poem – ‘Tribal Wars’ – by Comrade Freedom Nyamubaya who has sadly died at the age of 55. She was a powerful poet, an ex-combatant and a passionate advocate for land reform and rural development. She joined the liberation war in 1975, abandoning secondary school for the struggle, and later became a field operations commander with ZANLA. Later her poetry provided important insights into this period, and she took up the struggle after Independence with a deep commitment to development. Appropriately, it’s Zimbabwe’s Heroes Day today.
Along with the loss of Chenjerai Hove, we have lost two greats of Zimbabwean literature; superb commentators on life and politics, and inspirations for many of us.
When I heard of Cde Freedom’s passing I found my copy of On the Road Again, the anthology published in 1986 by ZPH. It is a slim volume, so it took a while to find, but I read it all again in a sitting. Even though written 30 years ago, the poems remain highly charged, and deeply pertinent today.
Cde Freedom was not shy to criticize those in power. She did not glorify the role of a freedom fighter. Indeed many of her poems are harrowing accounts, showing how women fighters were so often mistreated.
In ‘The Dog and the Hunter’, she explores betrayal by a new elite, and how some take the rich pickings, while others despite the hard work and commitment just get thrown the bones. In ‘A Mysterious Marriage’, she complains:
An old woman saw Freedom’s passing shadow
Walking through the crowd,
Freedom to the gate
All the same, they celebrated for Independence’
Here is the poem that gave the title to the anthology.
Nine months in the womb
Innocent and comfortable,
Never again will I rest.
Always on the go to nowhere,
Since I left that safe haven.
I creep, I walk,
Many times I run,
But most times I get pushed around.
A student in the morning,
A teacher mid-morning,
A builder at noon,
A slave in the afternoon,
A dog at dinner:
A combatant the rest of my life.
School has holidays,
Workers days off,
Dogs rest too,
But struggles to go on, go on.
Still on the road,
One endless journey.
A 2009 appreciation of her poetry can be found here, along with some more of her poems on the same Poetry International site.
As in the lines quoted in the title of this blog, she did not regard Independence as the end of the struggle. Indeed her commitment to farming and development was translated into the creation of Management Outreach Training Services for Rural and Urban Development (MOTSRUD). I met Cde Freedom once back in the 1980s, when the promise of Independence was still vibrant, and I was working with another inspiring product of the liberation war, Zephaniah Phiri.
Cde Freedom has been buried on her farm near Chinoyi a provincial hero; but even her passing continues to generate controversy. Her visions for Independent Zimbabwe have still not been realised. The struggle continues, like the river, forever.
A lion called Cecil from Zimbabwe hit the headlines this week. He had been shot by a dentist from Minnesota as part of a high-end bow hunting trip to Gwaai Conservancy on the edge of Hwange National Park. A huge uproar has been generated. Walter Palmer (the dentist) has been condemned by the general public, politicians, including the UK PM David Cameron, and countless ‘celebrities’. The Zimbabwean government has demanded his extradition for trial alongside the landowner, one Honest Trymore Ndlovu, and the hunting guide, Theo Bronkhorst from Bushman Safaris. Bronkhorst had helped bait the animal and draw it out of the park where it could be killed on private land, apparently though without the appropriate quota. There have been calls for a ban on hunting, tough restrictions on trophy imports and a flood of money being pledged for lion conservation.
The whole episode is for me a fascinating lens into Zimbabwean land politics, and the relationship between humans and ‘wild’ nature, at the centre of debates about conservation and development. A number of things have struck me while trawling through newspaper articles, social media and other commentary (some of it really weird – just check out #CecilTheLion for a flavour).
First is the relationship between people in the (urban, middle class) west and ‘wild’ Africa, and particularly its charismatic wildlife. The outpouring from everyone from Mia Farrow to Ricky Gervais to Newt Gingrich has imposed a strange anthropomorphism on poor Cecil. He had a name because he was famous for his large black mane. But why Cecil? Surely not linked to the other famous Cecil (John Rhodes) associated with Zimbabwe? Was this the tragic slaying of the imperial master, who had gained dominion over nature and people as the head of the pride? But Cecil also has another side to him. He is also constructed as one more of the cuddly toys – the Disney Lion King image of nature – that are stacked up outside the beleaguered dentist’s surgery. Walter Palmer did not fit in with the conservationist view – hunting and killing for pleasure is regarded widely with disgust, and the massive $50,000 fee seen as indulgent, arrogant extravagance.
Second, it raises questions about how hunting revenues can contribute to development. From the 1980s, Zimbabwe was at the forefront of an international movement away from a preservationist position on conservation to one that emphasised conservation for development through ‘sustainable utilisation’. Hunting it was argued could be seen as a form of management, as long as careful cull quotas were adhered to (apparently not in this case). Alongside Cecil, many lions (presumably without names) have been killed in the past years as part of regulated quotas. According to Peter Lindsay and colleagues in a 2013 PLOS One article, the annual lion quota for Zimbabwe is 101 across 38,000 square kilometres of hunting area on a mix of land-use types. On average 42.5 lions – less than half the quota – were killed each year between 2008 and 2011, presumably due to the drop in hunting visits to Zimbabwe in recent years. Along with other southern African countries, Zimbabwe pioneered an approach linking game hunting with development, and the famous CAMPFIRE programme from the late 1980s became a flagship, with hunting concessions offered on communal lands nearby parks and safari areas. The revenues raised were quite considerable, especially for the big five. Around 90 per cent of CAMPFIRE revenues were from sport hunting, not other forms of tourism. Funds were ploughed back into development projects with dividends going to both the local community and Rural District Councils. CAMPFIRE did not always work as planned, and there have been many critiques, but the principle of making use of local resources for local development has been widely acknowledged in the region – if not in East Africa where a more preservationist strand of conservation persists.
Third, while for Westerners lions are either Disney style characters in charge on the African plains or potential trophies to show off machismo and hunting prowesss, for many Africans living in areas near national parks, lions are dangerous predators and pests. They kill their stock, and sometimes people too. Last year there were a number of reports of lions terrorising people in the press in Zimbabwe. And no doubt many, many more where they killed livestock. Hunting as pest control is often valued, especially if the benefits are shared locally, and the hunting replaces the inadequate Problem Animal Control operations from the National Parks and Wildlife Agency. Walter Palmer might have been a saviour to some poor villagers, rather than the devil incarnate.
Fourth, the Cecil story exposes some of the racial dimensions of the relationships between wildlife, land and hunting in Zimbabwe. The hunting business has a long pedigree going back to the establishment of hunting blocks in various parts of the country in colonial times. Hunting was always seen as central to the colonial conquest of taming wild Africa. Many white farmers turned their properties over to private game hunting reserves in the 1980s and 90s, sometimes as part of large blocks of land where the fences were removed, called ‘conservancies’ – such as Gwaai in the west, as well as many others, notably the well-known Save Valley conservancy in the southeast. These blocks and conservancies became the playgrounds of a rich, white elite; some local but many international, with Americans and Europeans being regular customers. Unlike the CAMPFIRE arrangements, the benefits from conservancies to surrounding populations were minimal, beyond a few concessionary ‘outreach’ efforts. Grand visions of connecting conservancies with national parks across borders have recently been promoted in the ‘transfrontier parks’ movement, with the wildlife estate extending over massive areas, very often to the exclusion of people and their livelihoods. Conservation – and hunting – has been long associated with white privilege and colonial expansion, and a European construction of landscape as wilderness. Cecil (and the name becomes more appropriate with this lens) is also about issues of race, colonialism and the control over land.
Fifth, the case however also reveals a new elite land politics in Zimbabwe. The extensive game ranches and conservancies were mostly subject to land reform in the early 2000s. Many of the former owners were evicted, along with their safari operations. But these lands, unlike many of the agricultural areas elsewhere in the country, were not handed over to land-hungry peasants or unemployed urbanites, but to elites. For a time there was an argument that conservation areas were not to be part of the land reform, and that a separate wildlife-based land reform would be instituted. This was to be under the control of the Ministry of Environment, and not the Ministry of Lands, and so would guarantee the sanctity of the wildlife estate as a good source of revenue – from hunting, but more especially tourism. However this soon got overridden by politics and many of the conservancy lands and other game farms were allocated as part of A2 (medium to large scale) land reform. And, as with a lot of A2 allocations – and particularly in the conservancies that many assumed to be very lucrative businesses – to well-connected elites. The list of ‘beneficiaries’ of some of these areas reads like a who’s who of the ZANU-PF political-military elite. Wikileaks offered details of who was in the Gwaai area where Cecil was shot, and there are many recognisable names. Honest Trymore Ndlovu was one such beneficiary (a Mugabe ‘land grabber’ in some people’s parlance). The new land owners in search of income from their land have hooked up with white safari operators, some who had formerly operated on the same areas. Some are legit and above board, sadly many are less so – and Bronkhorst it is alleged is one of the less reputable crowd. Wildlife is once again perpetuating a new elite land politics linked to wildlife, excluding wider populations from the benefits. This time it’s with new (black) faces, but with many of the same unsavoury connections of the past, with links between politicians, poachers and hunting business entrepreneurs never far from the surface.
So what should we make of the sad demise of Cecil? Knee-jerk reactions resulting in bans on hunting or trophy imports will not solve anything. Indeed, past bans elsewhere have made things worse, with a rise in poaching, and decline in conservation protection. But while the posturing rhetoric about extraditing an American dentist dominates now, Zimbabweans should look harder at who benefits from wildlife. If revenues are to be generated from hunting quotas (and I am a great supporter of this route to conservation), they should not just benefit a narrow elite – a new pact between white hunters and their safari companies and the new politically-connected black elite, as exposed in the case of Cecil. If Cecil and his other 100 odd fellow lions are to be part of a regulated hunting quota, and so creating a resource for development, then the conservancies and game ranches need to be opened up for wider use to generate broader benefit. Only then will the wildlife assets of the nation be properly shared and the habitats preserved for Cecil and his relatives. Perhaps the outcry over Cecil can result in a proper wildlife based land reform, so such wildlife can benefit everyone, not just elites – black or white.
Tackling climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of our age. And this year is a crucial moment with the Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris in December 2015 hopefully to forge a new climate agreement. Forests, carbon and their management are high on the agenda, and a new book has just come out from the STEPS Centre, edited by Melissa Leach and myself. It’s called Carbon Conflicts and Forest Landscapes in Africa (take a peek at some of the content, check out the reviews and chapter listing, and use code DC361 and get 20% off buying it!).
The book dissects the issues, and offers a bunch of case studies from across Africa, including a great chapter on Zimbabwe by Vupenyu Dzingirai and Lindiwe Mangwanya from the Centre for Applied Social Sciences at UZ. This focuses on the Kariba REDD project in Hurungwe, one of a number of districts involved, with the whole project covering to date a massive 1.4 million hectares of land along the Zambezi valley.
Deforestation and land degradation globally contribute significantly to carbon emissions, and addressing these has become a major policy priority. Carbon offset approaches, mediated by carbon markets and facilitated by international accords and global climate finance, have become especially popular. In such schemes carbon emissions in one part of the world (usually the industrialised north) are offset by initiatives that reduce emissions in another part of the world where there are plentiful forests, and opportunities for new carbon sequestration (such as Africa). Such projects can, it is argued, additionally focus on poverty reduction and biodiversity protection, creating a ‘win-win’ scenario, rather than a feared ‘green grabbing’.
This is the theory; but what of the practice? The book is about what happens on the ground when carbon forestry projects – existing in various guises, often under the umbrella of the Reduced Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme – arrive. In this new field of environment and development practice, there are many new players, a whole panoply of models, processes and procedures for verification and monitoring, and a hot politics of authority and control. Understanding what works, and what doesn’t is crucial, and the various chapters offer some salutary lessons on the current fad for market-based offset approaches to carbon mitigation.
The detailed case studies come from seven countries, from west, east and southern Africa, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The chapters ask what actually happens when carbon forestry projects unfold in particular places: who wins, and who loses out, and what are the consequences – for carbon sequestration and offsetting, as well as poverty reduction? As all the cases show, carbon projects do not arrive on a blank slate. All sites have long histories of intervention, including a whole array of forestry, environmental protection and development projects. These have shaped and reshaped livelihoods and landscapes, and generated experiences and memories that influence local responses to new interventions.
The chapters cover a huge range of African ecologies, different carbon forestry project types and an array of national political-economic contexts. In all chapters, the authors ask: what difference does carbon make? What political and ecological dynamics are unleashed by these new commodified, marketized approaches, and how are local forest users experiencing and responding to them? Carbon forestry projects – as previous interventions in forest use, ownership and management – have not been the panacea some had expected. Multiple conflicts have emerged between land owners, forest users and project developers. Achieving a neat, market-based solution to climate mitigation through forest carbon projects not straightforward.
In the Zimbabwe case, for example, the project developer, Carbon Green Africa, has allied in Hurungwe with local Korekore farmers and the Rural District Council, offering a range of benefits, including carbon dividends and ‘alternative livelihood’ projects in exchange for protecting forests, and planting trees. As the notional ‘traditional’ and ‘administrative’ owners of the land, they should have the authority. But they are pitched against powerful forces with other ideas about resource use and economic priorities. These including politically-connected tobacco farmers who migrated to the area through the 1980s and 90s; indeed at the invitation of the same local Korekore leaders now backing carbon. Today, they are making considerable sums of money, and destroying substantial areas of forest when curing. With the land reform in 2000 there was a further wave of in-migration from those displaced from the nearby Karoi farmers, notably farmworkers of diverse origins. They were encouraged to settle on the frontiers, often inside game and safari areas as a buffer to wildlife for the long-standing residents. They too have cleared land and reduced forest cover, and survive through a mix of farming, hunting and gathering, as well as labouring on the tobacco farms. The new social, cultural and economic landscape, evolving through waves of migration, is one where a simple REDD project is immensely difficult to implement, as divisions based on ethnicity, class, gender, economic priority and more divide ‘the community’ that is notionally involved in the project. The assumption that climate mitigation through carbon offsetting in Africa’s forests is going to be easy is thoroughly challenged by the Zimbabwe case – as all the others in the book.
Across the book, we argue that a new politics of access and control over forests and their carbon is emerging, making the noble aims of climate mitigation through carbon forestry very challenging indeed. There’s a need to address conflicts head on, and to develop a more politically sophisticated approach to carbon governance in complex landscapes than has been seen to date. For all those engaged in the debates in the lead up to Paris and beyond, the book points to ways forward that take account of the complex, layered politics of Africa’s forest landscapes. As Jesse Ribot from the University of Illinois says: “Carbon forestry is privatizing, commodifying and financializing the world’s forests, recasting relations between state and market forest landscapes. This book illuminates the fraught political economy of this transformative moment”.
- LAUNCH DISCOUNT OFFER: Buy the book at a discount of 20% by using the DC361 on the Routledge website
- See all the books in the STEPS Pathways to Sustainability series
Imagine a country with a nationalist government that is proposing land reform. Imagine that a few hundred individuals, many of them ‘foreigners’, own half the country’s private land. Imagine that large swathes of this land was used for sport hunting for a rich elite. Imagine that the government was proposing to enforce proper use of the land for sustainable development through new legislation. Imagine the government through its land reform plans was proposing potential compulsory acquisition to transfer land to community use. Imagine the country’s leader saying that land as a national asset should benefit the majority not just the few. Imagine that the landed elite took umbrage, and shouted loudly at the injustice.
Have you guessed the country? No it’s not Zimbabwe, but Scotland. In June the Scottish government published a land reform bill with proposals for changing the tax benefits landowners had for grouse shooting and deer hunting. The bill proposes that land should be brought under sustainable management, and if it is not, the government could intervene and purchase the land. A fund is to be established for community purchases, and a target of 1m acres under community control is proposed, doubling the current amount. A land commission will oversee the policy and a land registry. The proposals are actually rather constrained – much like Zimbabwe’s were in the 1980s and 1990s. Perfectly reasonable proposals for land holding ceilings, common elsewhere in the world, were not included, for example.
But the outraged reaction has been staggering. The prophets of doom in the right wing press have been calling the proposals a ‘Mugabe style land grab’, the end of game shooting and hunting, a huge injustice, and an attack on a way of life. In the Spectator magazine, Lord Astor, the step-father-in-law of the current UK Prime Minister sounded off in self-righteous, indignant tones:
“Are we estate owners now to be nationalised or made to feel so unwelcome that we have to sell up in a Mugabe-style land grab? It would be a pity, but we are accused of owning too much. Are we really going to have to defend owning so many acres of hill when 500 acres of hill may be only worth the same or even less than one acre of good farmland in the lowlands of Scotland? Is it because we don’t sound Scottish? We should not all have to sound like Rob Roy”.
He recalls how his grandparents arrived, and, “after investing in the estate, improving the crofters’ cottages, reroofing them from turf to slate, they became well liked within the community. They spent summers on Jura, and occasionally visited in winter”.
The patrician tone, and the assumed benefit of large-scale land ownership, is well rehearsed in southern Africa too of course. Lord Astor goes on to explain how his neighbours on Jura are investing in golf courses, water turbines and distilleries to improve the lot of the locals (and presumably keep the estate owners’ bank balances and offshore trusts healthy too). The Duke of Argyle complains to the press about the ‘terrifying idea’ of land reform and that his castle and hunting grounds are at risk of falling into disrepair, like a French chateau. The imperious statements of these landed grandees demonstrate a privileged sense of entitlement; a feeling that massively skewed land ownership is somehow acceptable, no matter what the history of displacement. Sound familiar?
As so often when land reform issues are being debated, history is brushed aside, or just completely ignored. Scottish tenant farmers were removed in large numbers during the Highland Clearances from the second half of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century to give way to sheep farming. Displaced to crofter settlements and coastal villages, great suffering resulted, and many migrated to the New World. Later the sheep farms were replaced with deer forests and grouse moors, as a new elite, the beneficiaries of the industrial revolution, took over. Relatively few small-scale producers remain in crofting communities in the Highlands; most had to move to the cities or abroad to give way to new forms of production. The estates were very often run by the English gentry; and later also rich elites from the Middle East, even Africa. Bizarre but true, around the time of the Zimbabwe land invasions, a rumour went around that Robert Mugabe owned a Highland estate, and BBC journalists were apparently dispatched check out the (false) story.
No-one of course knows exactly how many people own the land in Scotland, and who owns it. Land ownership remains secret, and there has never been a full, transparent audit. Hiding unequal land ownership is a familiar pattern (again some parallels?), and pressures to impose a full registration to allow for proper taxation and land auditing have been resisted for decades (I wonder why?). Some estimate that 0.025 per cent of the population owns 67 per cent of Scotland’s rural land, and only 432 individuals own half the private land in Scotland, some of it absolutely massive estates. Ten per cent of Scotland is estimated to be owned by just 16 individuals or groups. It makes Scotland one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of land ownership.
The Scottish National Party, now the dominant political force in Scotland, has land reform as one of its core platforms. It will be important in the 2016 Holyrood elections for the Scottish parliament. Nationalist rhetoric, and a narrative about the return of the land, is of course good electoral material (yes, more parallels), and the hysterical reactions of a privileged (perceived ‘foreign’) elite makes it all the more effective (familiar too?).
Only now are Scots and the wider UK population waking up to the shocking disparities in land ownership and the outrageous tax breaks and benefits that are being drawn on by the landed elite in Scotland. The Scottish government argues that the modest, sensible, rather cautious land reform proposals should be seen as the first step towards a more radical transformation of the Scottish countryside and rural economy.
Such moves are always resisted: names are called, terrible disasters predicted, and outrage vented to anyone who will listen. But land reform can be beneficial, and progressive as our work has shown for (some of) Zimbabwe’s land reform experience. The prospects of more positive change (rural and urban) is enhanced if it becomes part of a mature national debate about more just economic futures, as is beginning to happen in Scotland. Resisting, delaying and then rushing a land reform through when politically expedient, is not the best path, as Zimbabwe’s failure to address land inequality after Independence shows. When a slow, more modest change, leading to more radical shifts over time were proposed in the 1990s, they were rejected by those with their head in the sand, as some are now doing in Scotland. This was a big mistake, and one that Zimbabwe has paid a heavy price for.
I suggested last week that Zimbabwe might offer some lessons for Greece. Perhaps the Zimbabwean advisers could stop off in Scotland too.
I ended last week’s blog with a call for the rejection of the economics of the mainstream. Last week the Greek people voted resoundingly against the conditions of austerity imposed by creditors. Democracy spoke loudly with the ‘no’ vote in the referendum, and it was the younger generation who came in behind Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Yet in a rollercoaster week the Syriza government reversed its principled rejection of the measures, and proposed a draconian if pragmatic alternative. This in turn was rejected by hardliners in Europe, isolating Greece and forcing a ‘deal’ (see #Thisisacoup). Some have asked what can Africa learn from Greece?; in this blog I argue that Greece (and others) can learn a lot from African experience.
Debt is on the rise again not just in Greece, but across the world. A decline in commodity prices with a strengthening of the US dollar makes debt unsustainable in many economies, with rising proportions of government revenues being spent on debt servicing and debt accounting for higher and higher proportions of total GDP. The extremes of Greece are rare, whose debt had risen to some 178 per cent of GDP, probably more now as its economy has crashed, but the signs are ominous. Zimbabwe has a massive external debt, amounting to 40 per cent of GDP, while other countries in the region, such as Mozambique and Tanzania, are racking up debt to fuel growth. But, as a timely new report from the Jubilee debt campaign shows, such growth masks growing inequalities, huge liabilities linked to ‘public private partnership’ deals, and a debt servicing requirement that will squeeze public expenditure for years.
Is this a return to the 1980s and 1990s, when many countries across Africa – like Greece today – were saddled with unsustainable debt and forced by their creditors to take the unpalatable medicine of austerity packages imposed by the International Finance Institutions? Can lessons for Greece and debt vulnerable nations in Africa be learned from this period and its aftermath? I think so. The new Greek finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos, knows a thing or two about this. An MPhil graduate of the IDS at Sussex in the 1980s (before my time), he later published a paper in the Journal of Development Studies in 1994 on ‘the scope and limits of financial liberalisation in developing countries’, and a paper in the Cambridge Journal of Economics arguing for a commitment to values in economics. He comes from a different branch of economics to the mainstream, and like his predecessor has run up against the hawkish positions of the German government, the IMF and others.
In Africa of course, IMF/World Bank austerity measures were not put to a popular vote in the 1980s and 1990s. Like in Greece, they would I am sure have been roundly rejected. Governments of all political persuasions were instead bullied into compliance with drastic structural adjustment measures. Zimbabwe abandoned its measured ‘growth with equity’ strategy in 1991 in favour of the notorious ESAP policy (known locally as ‘Economic Suffering for African Peoples’, alongside many other versions of the acronym). We know the consequences of this disastrous period, both economically and politically, as I have commented before.
But what if structural adjustment (aka austerity) across Africa had been replaced by a more balanced debt restructuring, encouraging investment alongside reform, while protecting basic services and the vulnerable? What if the enforced liberalisation of markets had been more managed, and the predatory capitalism that often took over more restrained? What if there had been more accountability in such liberalisation processes, would there have been less venal corruption taking over? What if governments across Africa had not lost core capacities due to structural adjustment measures, would there have been more extension services, clinics and schools, with benefits for agriculture, health and education, and so less poverty and inequality? What if debts had been released, so that investments in development could take place, rather than channelling revenues into debt servicing?
These are lots of big ‘what ifs?’, but the damage imposed has been long-lasting: not only on economies and the lost decades of low growth, but also directly on people; on those who missed out on an education, and with the decimation of health services, the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic unfolding across the continent at the same time was much, much worse. Of course lessons have been learned and in some quarters the ‘Washington Consensus’ of those years has been rejected. In the 2000s, the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt release deals were linked to a focus on poverty reduction, and for some countries in Africa it had a positive effect – even if this was only temporary.
Escaping debilitating debt while promoting both growth and social justice is possible, however. This was the deal struck following the end of the Second World War in Europe. Greece indeed was one of the parties that signed the agreement to cancel German debt, and allow it to grow successfully after its decimation by war. The London Conference of 1953 was a key moment for Europe, sadly not being repeated in Brussels this past weekend. Germany is a nation that has come to terms with its history, but clearly not this particular detail. The aggressive rejection of Greece’s plight, runs against these wider lessons. Structural debt, imposed through a range of forces, never wholly the fault of the countries concerned, requires radical solutions, and not just an imposition of austerity and suffering. Yet, as with Africa a few decades ago, Greece’s creditors continue to reject a long-term solution, and seem intent on humiliation, teaching a wayward country a lesson. The rhetoric of those involved is shocking. A few weeks back, the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, called for dialogue ‘with adults in the room’. African negotiators will recall the way the international institutions humiliated, demeaned and infantalised, rejecting pleas for a more balanced way forward. They will have much sympathy with the Greeks today.
On resigning his post, Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, argued, “yes to a proper resolution – to an agreement that involves debt restructuring, less austerity, redistribution in favour of the needy, and real reforms”. Despite the arguments of many economists from around the world, this path has it seems been rejected, and Greece, and Europe, will suffer. But what of Africa? Africa is now beyond the structural adjustment period, the Washington consensus has been diluted, and there are new players, and new ideas, on the scene. Unlike Greece, African countries are not so behoven to a dominating power such as Germany, and less tied to a particular regional economic and political ‘project’. This is a good thing. Today, across Africa new perspectives are on the table, and not just the tired, old, failed medicine from the IMF and others. Most notably new ideas, and finance, are coming from China, Brazil, India, Malaysia and South Korea, among others. A new state-led developmentalism is the flavour of the day. In Rwanda or Ethiopia a new African formulation of a ‘developmental state’ is being forged. Others too are interested, including maybe Zimbabwe. Like Paul Kagame and the late Meles Zenawi, Emmerson Mnangagwa draws insights and experience from the ‘emerging nations’, and notably China.
Later this week, government representatives from across the world assemble in in Addis to discuss a financing for development, in advance of the signing of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in September. The conference document is full of high-sounding words, but the debates are framed in a very different way to those of the 1980s and 1990s. Sustainable finance, patient capital, long-term investment, balancing productivity with social protection are the watchwords. Much more Keynes than Friedman, and a focus on long-term sustainable development, not short, sharp shock treatment according to ideological disciplining and subjugation. The UN discussions in Addis of course only touch on a small element of the wider picture. Financing from the BRICS are barely mentioned in the documents, yet the BRICS bank, the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank and the Chinese or Brazilian state investment banks are increasingly important players, as well as of course huge private investment flows, as global capital restructures with Africa firmly in its sights. Balancing these investments, offsetting risks and avoiding unsustainable debt will be a tricky balancing act for all African governments in the coming years, as commodity-led growth tails off. Greece, as well as many countries in Africa, have suffered the long-term consequences of a combination of structural underdevelopment, oligarchic corruption and patrimonialism and poor economic governance. Finding a way out of the bind without succumbing to more pain and suffering will be tough, requiring new ideas and new allies.
A great new book is just out by Morten Jerven called Africa: Why Economists Get it Wrong. It is a follow up to his excellent 2013 book, Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do about It that I featured several times in this blog.
He argues: “There has been a chronic failure among economists to explain growth in Africa. The methods and analytical angles they have used to explain relative failure in Africa were conceived in the 1990s, but these were unsuitable for explaining growth in the 1960s or growth since the 2000s”.
Jerven does not deny that there has been economic failure in Africa. Zimbabwe is of course a case in point. But this was not generic failure, over the whole ‘post-colonial’ period across a whole continent. Rather there have been variations: growth in fits and starts, cycles of successes and failures, often with success being hidden by the aggregate statistics given the informal nature of much economic activity (certainly the case for Zimbabwe, as I’ve argued many times).
But what he calls this “erroneous stylised fact” of generic failure over a long period has been the basis for an ahistorical, decontextualised analysis of African growth patterns, which attempt to explain the African “shortfall” through cross-country or cross-continental comparison. The assumption is that it was a set of “initial conditions” that created the African predicament. Conditions such as environmental factors, ethnic fragmentation and a lack of social capital have all been suggested to have a direct role in the failure of economic growth. Just being African seems to be a problem according to some of this analysis.
However, Jerven argues “the causality story – initial conditions causing slow growth – is wrong and therefore not useful for policy advice”. Moreover, he argues “policy typologies such as the distinction between “closed” and “open” economies, or the related “bad” and “good” policies, do not correlate coherently with episodes of economic growth in African countries”.
The title of this blog is a reference to the much-lauded book, ‘Why Nations Fail’ , that I have reviewed before on this blog’. Jerven also takes this argument to task as it offers a far too simplistic and functionalist a view of institutions and governance, and, he argues, gets causality back-to-front. Effective institutions and ‘good’ governance emerge from development, and are not so much its precursors, he suggests. As he notes: “several decades were wasted putting a lot of effort into curing symptoms that were thought to be causes”.
So what are the key complaints Jerven has against economics as applied to Africa? It’s of course not all economics and economists that his ire is focused on, but a certain style of aggregated economic reasoning derived from comparative cross-country econometrics. Why has this approach been so problematic, and what can be done about it?
The problems Jerven outlines are multiple. The data that are used is often very shaky and patchy. Models derived from such data are inevitably suspect: garbage in, garbage out, as the adage goes. Aggregation across countries, and comparisons with patterns elsewhere miss out on the particularities of different economies and their histories, and so end up offering false or at least highly simplistic explanations. Africa, of course is not a country, but many and diverse nations, regions and economies with complex histories. But simple narratives prevail and are reinforced by aggregate economic analysis. Jerven identifies a few choice media quotes from The Economist over time that regurgitate the narrative that ‘Africa’ is a disaster, or alternatively today, ‘Africa’ is rising; statements that are almost completely meaningless and not supported by solid data.
The consequences of these faulty analyses – and the media tropes that follow on – are of course very real, as the book points out. Decades of structural adjustment policies were pushed across Africa on false premises, and with disastrous consequences. The arguments for institutional reform and good governance as preconditions for development may fail, as these new institutional forms may have to emerge from developmental processes, and be appropriately adapted to contexts (just as happened in Europe or the US). And, of course, the generic prescriptions for a whole continent fail to pay attention to location and specificity, and of course political economy and history.
So what to do? There are clearly a number of important challenges. One of course is to improve the data that analyses are based on. If we are relying only on very poor numbers, then it’s difficult to expect anything other than the garbage that is currently churned out. With better spatial differentiation, improved time series and so on, we can get to grips with variation and pattern, and offer greater nuance in our analyses. Good numbers really do matter. If growth pathways are so much to do with context – of politics, history, and so on – then cross-country econometric comparisons, especially with massively unlike settings (say comparing Asia or Europe with Africa) are really largely a waste of effort. Instead, Jerven argues, we need to move from cross-country econometrics to understanding particular economies in context, and understanding how African economies actually work. This means a focus on real markets, not the abstractions of models; informal and formal economic activity and the interactions between, not just what is in the formal statistics; and the historical and political factors that frame and shape options for the future.
The profession of economics with its current false scientism and its obsession with quantitative method has, over time, distanced itself from the complexities on the ground. The search for grand, universalising explanations for growth, poverty, inequality or whatever, has lost sight of the particular, contingent, conjectural conditions that create change and transformation. This is a profound methodological point. The book hints at the need for a revolution in development economics that brings back the older traditions of political economy and economic history. Such analyses must be focused not on assumed or inferred economic rules or an obsession with initial conditions driving uniform change, but the particular operations of particular economies – of nations, regions in particular settings.
Zimbabwe has a proud history of this type of economics (alongside some of the other more problematic sort). The Department of Economic History at UZ has long been an important source of insight into economic change over time, rooted in particular locations. The Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies, sadly no more, was a focus for political economy analysis of labour, land, industrial change and more by many key scholars. Today, work at institutes such as the African Institute for Agrarian Studies, the Centre for Applied Social Sciences or the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute continue this work. Sustaining these intellectual traditions – rooted in place, context and history – will be important, as Zimbabwe seeks an alternative growth path into the future. Such analyses should help resist the more simplistic and often dangerous prescriptions from the flawed economics of the mainstream.