The case for redistributing land – evidence from South Africa

A recent blog post by Chris Blattman alerted me to  a new paper by Malcolm Keswell and Michael Carter based on an analysis of land reform in South Africa. Contrary to much other commentary, it found that the land transfers boosted household living standards by 25%. It seems even in South Africa land reform works for the poor.

A sophisticated methodology was used (and some quite complicated maths too…) using binary treatment effects for each case, allowing deeper insights into specific households’ living standard trajectories across 1650 households participating in the government’s LRAD programme.

Also, and particularly interestingly, the continuous treatment estimates “which exploit variations in the period of ownership of the redistributed land” show a pattern seen before in Zimbabwe, as argued by Bill Kinsey for the 1980s resettlements. Their results  “show that living standards initially dip with the land transfers, but then after three years rise to levels that imply a 50% increase in living standards of the treated households who entered the program with poverty line standards of living”.

So could land reform become a central plank of ‘social protection’ schemes so beloved of donors and government programmes across Africa? There is much talk of building assets for transformative social protection, yet so many assets offered by aid programmes are inadequate without land access. What can farmers do with tools if they have little land to farm, or livestock if they have no grazing? The other day, I asked Stephen Devereux, a leading expert on social protection in Africa, whether land transfers were being used in social protection programming. Apparently only one programme in Bangladesh has tried it – and with some success apparently.

Our work under the Livelihoods after Land Reform programme by Michael Aliber and colleagues showed glimmers of positive news in South African land reform sites in Limpopo province, but not the more dramatic improvements in agriculture and livelihoods that we saw in the sister study in Zimbabwe, and we did not have the time series data to explore the sort of changes seen by Keswell and Carter.

But maybe our methodology was too crude. Our study was certainly more limited, and focused on a province with low agricultural potential. The most significant finding from the Limpopo study was that success was happening on the margins, outside the formal strictures of the land reform programme, through innovation and experimentation by different farmers with models of farming more suited to their needs, aspirations and livelihoods. The South African models for land reform, it seemed, were almost designed to create failure – creating unwieldy coops, forcing farmers to adopt business models borrowed from white commerical farming, and allowing schemes to become embroiled in complex planning, financing and consultancy driven design systems.

There was a substantial critique of the top-down nature of Zimbabwe’s resettlement programme in the 1980s, including the assumptions about the need for new settlers to be ‘full-time farmers’. In the post 2000 period, of course, Zimbabwe’s land reform beneficiaries have been largely released from the strictures of top down planning and permit systems (although attempts have of course been made). This has unquestionably allowed more flexibility, innovation and responsiveness.

But the question raised by the new South Africa paper is whether land reform can be used more strategically as part of social protection and poverty reduction programmes in the future. Or will donors prefer to carry on handing out cash, food, and maybe a few tools and goats?

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One response to “The case for redistributing land – evidence from South Africa

  1. Pingback: Greatest hits. Your favourite posts in the past year | zimbabweland

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