Bill Gates discovers redistributive land reform

It seems that Bill Gates has discovered the importance of redistributive land reform. He has recently reviewed Joe Studwell’s book, How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region, in a blog titled: Can the Asian Miracle Happen in Africa?

The book explains why some Asian countries developed rapidly and others did not? Gates summarises the findings. “[Studwell] offers a simple, three-part formula:

  1. Create conditions for small farmers to thrive.
  2. Use the proceeds from agricultural surpluses to build a manufacturing base that is tooled from the start to produce exports.
  3. Nurture both these sectors (small farming and export-oriented manufacturing) with financial institutions closely controlled by the government”.

OK, that sounds rather obvious. But a key to the success of some Asian countries (Taiwan, South Korea, China, Japan and others) has been redistributive land reform and directed state support (see the blog on Thailand – not one of the ‘star’ performers, but with important lessons for Africa).

Surrounded by the technologists and economists he has hired into his Foundation – many from places like Monsanto, but also the CGIAR – his agriculture programmes have been focused on big wins in production, based mostly on technology investments (the classic Green Revolution formula of seeds and fertilisers, as well as irrigation). This of course forgets one of the key lessons of the Green Revolution: that it was the wider conditions, including earlier land reforms, that were key, and that the state had to provide a solid, supportive role.

Gates continues his summary of the lessons from the book: “when you give farmers ownership of modest plots and allow them to profit from the fruits of their labor, farm yields are much higher per hectare. And rising yields help countries generate the surpluses and savings they need to power up their manufacturing engine”. This he surmises is the essence of the Asian miracle. A key lesson from the book he concludes is “that rapid agricultural development requires redistributing land more equitably among the farming population”; a lesson reinforced by Michael Lipton’s great 2009 book, Land Reform in Developing Countries that pulls together all the evidence.

In terms of lessons for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), he candidly notes: “To date, I haven’t focused as much on the land ownership piece as I have on the role of better seeds, fertilizers, and farming practices. This book made me to want to learn more about the land ownership picture in countries where our foundation funds work”.

This is of course a crucial part of the picture, and anyone studying agrarian change will point to the importance of the relationship between agrarian structure, agricultural productivity and wider economic growth. When land distribution has been highly unequal – as in East Asia and in southern Africa – redistribution of land to smallholders is a key step in economic development.

It’s good that Bill Gates has noticed this, as he has helped shape agricultural development strategy in Africa over the last decade or so through his multi-million dollar grant giving. And it has not always been in a sensible direction in my view, as politics, policy and land have often been missing (as he now admits).

I doubt he is a reader of this blog, but if anyone happens to meet him, do steer him in this direction, and encourage him to break out of the silos of technology expertise that he has created in his Foundation, and urge him to draw on wider insights from agrarian political economy. Together with the work on technology and markets (both important of course), this really could make the difference that the BGMF is always looking for in Africa.

The post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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16 responses to “Bill Gates discovers redistributive land reform

  1. Pingback: Bill Gates discovers redistributive land reform | Zimbo News

  2. William Doctor

    A couple of issues. In Zimbabwe, step 1 (create conditions …) involved serious human rights abuse and documented electoral fraud. I very much doubt Gates would condone that. And these issues need to be addressed, which is why sanctions were right. Sanctions are a form of protest against human rights violations. I very much doubt Zimbabwe will get to step 2 until farmers and farm workers are compensated, and free-and-fair elections held. But that will mean a possible return of ‘white capital’ which you’d argue against, even though Gates is the ultimate capitalist (but you quote him where it suits your arguments).

    Another issue – what works in Asia may not work in Africa. I wonder why there are very few African success stories? Botswana is one success story – but this has been through diamond sales. Subsistence farming in Botswana accounts for only 2.8% of GDP. Botswana’s constitution also ‘prohibits the nationalisation of private property and provides for an independent judiciary…’.

    If Zimbabwe had followed land reform within the confines of the law, compensated farmers (as South Africa continues to do), and allowed free-and-fair elections, then the country would be more successful than it is today, and you wouldn’t need to selectively cite Gates to support your arguments.

    • Of course what works somewhere may not work everywhere, and of course one of the key lessons of the Green Revolution was effective institutions and state support. But I still think it is worth looking to other experiences to learn lessons, and the importance of redistributive land reform is an important and well documented one.

  3. Susanne Schuster

    It will be interesting to see whether Bill Gates will indeed open up more to the necessity of land reform in tackling poverty.

    I deeply mistrust his motives and aims. Gates is an arch-capitalist and his foundation has major shareholdings in corporations like Monsanto and GlaxoSmithKline. Monsanto is part of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a programme launched in 2012 that claims to help farmers in Africa, but African civil society groups have labelled it a new wave of colonialism. African agriculture is just another source of capital accumulation for corporations.

    Under the capitalist profit and ownership structures, land reform will never be as radical as it needs to be. When it starts to threaten property and power relations, a red line is crossed. I am convinced that’s why the Zimbabwean president Mugabe was demonised so much. The Zimbabwean land reform and indigenisation law effectively put barriers up for capital and that’s completely unacceptable.

    Even the mega rich like Gates and Soros are now getting concerned about the extent of inequality, but only for selfish reasons. I don’t for one minute believe they are genuinely interested in true equality and democracy. If that were the case then we wouldn’t need philantropy.

    • William Doctor

      Mugabe was demonised because he violated basic human rights and stole a number of elections. Surely human rights are more important than your distrust of ‘capitalist profit and ownership structures’?

  4. William Doctor

    With all the attention that ‘freedom of speech’ is getting in Europe – I thought that you’d be above censorship – but it appears not. My comments are not offensive – why do you censor them?

    • Give me a break! I can only deal with the blog intermittently, and have been in meetings continuously this week. This is a very, very part-time activity. However, in order to encourage the dialogue and extend the debate, it would be great if a greater diversity of comments could be submitted.

      • William Doctor

        Break granted.

      • Rights are essential, but so is redistribution. They are not alternatives in my view. Unfortunately much discourse in Zimbabwe (and elsewhere) seems to pit such approaches against each other. Progressive development must be based on redistribution AND rights, and a more mature negotiation about the priorities and trade-offs between them.

  5. Pingback: Ian Scoones welcomes Bill Gates to the real world of land reform | The Insider

  6. Katherine

    Although farm ownership is a major part in improving farming productions anywhere in the world, I think more importantly we should focus on the education of farmers and farming practises. Just by giving farmers land does’t always lead to higher yields per hectare, as Gates stated. An example of this is the Soldier Settlement blocks given to soldiers returning from World War 1. Many soldiers given these blocks didn’t last more than five years before moving on because they didn’t know how to run a farm. Even in western countries, such as Australia, farmers are learning new ways of production all the time, including more sustainable use of resources and adaptions to a changing climate. If farmers in Africa for instance, are given the education about how to best deal with their specific climate conditions, soil types and production demands/ costs then much more can be achieved compared to just giving them seed and fertiliser. It also means that they will become self sufficient more quickly (which I believe is the ultimate outcome), rather than rely on western or Asian countries for support for much longer periods of time and therefore not grow economically or politically. I am not a political analyst, but this is my view as a farmer and what I want to see in the Agricultural industry on a global level.

    • Yes, I agree. Getting access to land is only one step; making it productive requires a lot more. This is why I do not reject the Gates Foundation focus on technology and markets at all. These are vital, but again are not the whole story. Redistribution of secure access to land is an essential part of the mix, as Bill Gates now recognises.

  7. am

    Growth through agriculture is achievable if well managed. It represents an economic school of thought with considerable names behind the idea.

    Land redistribution has two aspects to it. 1. Rightful repossession of the land by the indigenous people. 2. Productive use of the land after redistribution. The latter is the problem. Land cannot be given to just anybody. Therein lies the problem. How to identify those that will be productive needs more thought.

    • William Doctor

      The problem with point 1. is that the Bantu are not indigenous to southern Africa. They displaced the San ~ 1000 years BP following the Bantu migrations southward. This is well documented, and genetic research has shown it. There had to be land reform – but it was principally based on race hate.

  8. Mugabe has empowered his people. I respect Bill Gates

  9. Xuma

    The redistribution of land to the Majority and original owners of land in Zimbwabwe was the best. This ensures that people are in control of their land and future rather than depend on the grabbers that feel they are more entitled to it due to their race. There should be no apologies for this.

    Though problems exist, they will not last forever and Zimbwabwe is soon (in say 20 years or so) going to be the best country in Africa where the real Africans control their economy.

    The sooner other African countries such as Botwana, Namibia, SA, Mozambique take steps to address white domination of their economy, the better bcos the bubble is gonna bust one day and they will end up where Zimbabwe is today.

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