Lessons from Thailand? A new rural economy and Zimbabwe’s political peasants

I have just been reading a fascinating book about rural Thailand called Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power and the Modern Rural Economy” by Andrew Walker from ANU. What on earth has this got to do with Zimbabwe, you ask?

Currently, a number of scholars are interested in the experience of southeast Asian countries in agricultural and rural development, and the lessons there may be for Africa, including an interesting research study looking at paired African-SE Asian comparisons. Such countries – including Thailand, but also Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam – have seen rapid economic growth overall, driven in part by a strong agricultural sector. The result has been plummeting poverty levels, and rising prosperity including in previously extremely poor rural areas. Their agricultural sectors have benefited from sustained state investment, including substantial input subsidies, strategic infrastructure development and reduced taxation. Land and tenure reform has been part of the story too, as more equitable land holdings provided a strong foundation for growth. There has of course been differentiation, and this has created a new class of rural dweller: someone who farms successfully, often linked into quite specialised value chains, but also someone who has also diversified into a range of off-farm activities, creating vibrant rural economies with strong forward and backward linkages. There are those who have dropped out too, but growing economies means potentials for absorption in gainful urban employment – or increasing rural employment as previously depressed rural areas boom.

In each of these countries, there has been a different pattern, phasing and geographically specific set of impacts. Thailand’s Political Peasants focuses on the fortunes of northeast Thailand. Andrew Walker describes how

“Thailand’s 21st century peasants have mobilised to defend the direct relationship they have established with the Thai state over the past 40 years. This is not the old-style politics of the rural poor, characterised by rebellion, revolution or resistance. Contemporary rural politics is driven by a middle-income peasantry with a thoroughly modern political logic. Their strategy is to engage with sources of power, not to oppose them”.

Unlike other studies which focus on the economic factors, this book highlights the politics. The strong backing of Thaksin Shinawatra, often through highly corrupt, patronage arrangements, was an important factor. The rural population benefited from such investment, and backed Shinawatra and his party (and since 2011 by Yingluck Shinawatra). In the regular tussle between the urban based elite monarchists, the orange shirts, and the rural based red shirts, the national political dynamic is laid bare. But rural constituencies matter when they are doing well, and no political party in Thailand can ignore them, no matter how much the urban, industrial boom continues.

As discussed in an earlier blog, rural differentiation unleashed by land reform in Zimbabwe presents a new, and potentially powerful, constituency, reconfiguring the national political landscape. The emergence of a strong, vocal, relatively economically successful middle farmer group is an important new political phenomenon. Here the parallel with Thailand ends, however. Agriculture and rural development has not received the backing by the state, or any political formation, in the same way, and as a result the type of upward spiral economic growth seen in Thailand has not emerged. Zimbabwe’s economy is severely depressed so non-rural alternatives are not available, and the middle income country dynamic seems a way off yet.

But perhaps, just perhaps, there are more lessons. They are all big ifs right now, but what if a new political settlement centred on this new rural constituency, and political survival and rural economic growth became intimately linked? What if the new windfalls from mineral resources were invested in rural revitalisation? What if this resulted in the sort of agriculture-led economic growth that we have seen hints of already, with spin-offs into employment, rural markets and the growth of rural towns? It will require a new political settlement combined with a new economic vision, neither of which are anywhere evident right now, but just maybe a shift in political forces in the coming years, driven by changes in class affiliations, motivations and alliances, will result in such a shift. In the 1970s, as Andrew Walker documents, no-one believed it would happen in Thailand; maybe in 20 or 30 years time Zimbabwe will look very different too.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland


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6 responses to “Lessons from Thailand? A new rural economy and Zimbabwe’s political peasants

  1. Mike Davies

    “Their strategy is to engage with sources of power, not to oppose them” is a very dangerous strategy since it generally perpetuates the subjugation of people. Would you extend the same argument to the relationships of people and countries in the South with the US?

    Mugabe has, like Smith before him, relied on a rural power-base that is maintained through patronage and dependency. He has replaced a white rural elite with a black one while resettling under-resourced peasant farmers who have little or no security of tenure and who remain beholden to the elite and subject to elite predation. Such a situation encourages short-term profit-taking (eg deforestation, charcoal-burning, fertility mining) rather than longer-term sound agricultural practices. Do you recommend that this political economy is embraced and strengthened?

    Thailand is a wetland rice-based agricultural system which is very different to a maize/cattle-based one like Zimbabwe, one that requires both stability and small-scale agricultural practices because of the demands of wetland rice cultivation are much greater than those of maize and do not easily transfer into agro-industrial technologies.

    Urbanisation is a global inevitability and although Zimbabwe’s is only at 30% now, this will increase when change occurs (I agree that “in 20 or 30 years time Zimbabwe will look very different too”). We should be looking at political systems that enhance the lives of all Zimbabweans not only the rural population: a patronage system based on village economies is not the answer if Zimbabwe is to progress (assuming that education, modernisation, industrialisation and urbanisation equate to progress, which is another debate).

  2. Ken May

    Thailand has had a positive trade balance for at least the past ten years, has a very low unemployment rate, and low interest rates. Agriculture accounts for only 13% of GDP. Very different to Zimbabwe.

  3. CFKD

    “Thailand’s Political Peasants focuses on the fortunes of northeast Thailand.” – Actually his study is based on a data from a village in the North of Thailand, not the Northeast (Isaan). This is important because, while these two regions have a lot in common, the Northeast is a semi-arid region with most soils being sandy and acidic. Compared to the North, the agricultural productivity is much lower in the Northeast.

  4. Pingback: Transforming Zimbabwe’s agrarian economy: why smallholder farming is important | zimbabweland

  5. Pingback: Bill Gates discovers redistributive land reform | zimbabweland

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