Small towns and economic development: lessons from Zimbabwe

At Independence in 1980, the new government set about investing in new infrastructure aimed at redressing the imbalances of the colonial past, as described by K.H. Wekwete. This included a focus on small urban centres. The 1982 Transitional Development Plan stated:

“Existing discrepancies in the ordering of urban settlements will be corrected by balanced investment in growth and rural service centres. The intention is to bring the rural population into close contact with services and markets, thus forging linkages with the national economy and stimulating the development of local markets with regional specialisations and a multitude of informal employment opportunities”

The Department of Physical Planning proposed a seven tier hierarchy of urban areas – consolidated villages, business centres, rural service centres, district service centres, growth points, towns and cities. This built on attempts from the 1970s to create ‘African’ towns in ‘African areas, and the emergence of the first set of ‘growth points’ supported by TILCOR, the Tribal Trust Land Development Corporation. This was aimed at maintaining the dual economy, and racial separation, while encouraging economic growth in ‘African’ areas.

Urban and regional planning theory had long argued for a distributed approach to infrastructure development, in order to generate balanced growth and effective service delivery. New urban areas should be aimed at facilitating economic activity through ‘linkage’ and ‘multiplier’ effects, while providing sites for markets and services. This might involve significant infrastructure investment to encourage industrial activity (as in ‘growth poles’) or a more incremental approach through planning support for the growth of ‘nodes’ of economic activity – as in the arguments of ‘central place theory’.

However in the context of a highly uneven economy, with spatially concentrated populations – the legacy of colonial land allocation and racialized settlement policy – simply investing in infrastructure and services was not enough. In the colonial era towns grew where there was economic activity. There were the mining towns, such as Zvishavane, Mashava, Hwangwe, Shurugwi, Kadoma and Kwekwe; there were the estate towns, such as Chiredzi and Triangle; and there were the white farming towns, such as Chinoyi, Bindura or West Nicholson. These had their own growth dynamic; but expecting similar patterns to emerge simply through planning edict and limited investment in infrastructure was bound to fail.

The TILCOR growth points that included Sanyati, Maphisa, Gutu, Mrewa, Nkayi, Wedza and others were incorporated into the post-Independence investment strategy. District centres and growth points were placed under the control of local government, with all districts across the country having investment plans that included the supply of water, electricity, feeder roads, sewage systems, and the establishment of government offices. But these centres suffered many problems. They were not necessarily integrated into local economies, and the dualistic pattern of economic development continued. Some prospered, but many remained more in planners’ imaginations than in reality. Those that grew significantly included Gokwe, which prospered due to the cotton boom. Meanwhile, Gutu-Mupandawana took advantage of its location at a distance from other larger towns and in a communal area that had agricultural potential. Mrewa and Mutoko similarly grew through the links to farming and particularly as staging posts for small-scale horticultural marketing to Harare from the communal areas. Meanwhile places like Chivi, where I spent a lot of time in the 1990s, and many others like it languished.

The lesson of course was clear. You need things happening in the economy around an urban centre, and this cannot be conjured up by grand plans and infrastructural investment. For it is the wider structural constraints that hold economies back. In Zimbabwe of course this was substantially to do with access to productive land. Gokwe had plenty of land nearby, and new migrants profited from cotton and Gokwe boomed, but at the same time, peasant farmers in Chivi communal area were barely surviving on small plots and without access to resettlement and the economy remained depressed; more so from the early 1990s with the squeeze on the economy due to structural adjustment policies, and the decline in off-farm opportunities and remittance flows.

At Independence there was much policy discussion about reshaping the economy, and investing in ways that created a ‘rebalancing’ from the skewed racially-defined economy that Zimbabwe inherited. Despite the high rhetoric and the impressive plans little of course happened, and the ambitions of new small town growth were largely dashed. Following land reform post-2000 however the economy has been substantially restructured, with new areas of economic activity – combined of course with declines elsewhere. This requires new thinking, and a new set of ambitions. Not based on the false promises of planning, but linking new investments to existing dynamics of economic activity. Lessons today should not draw on the (largely) failed growth point approaches of the 80s and 90s, but focus on how to capitalise on the new economic activity prompted by land reform through an integrated regional economic development approach.

For sure, growth and economic activity is tentative, and much of it is informal but it is certainly there – and in places like Mvurwi or Chatsworth covered in previous blogs in this series, and often not in those places that the old economy worked for. Comments on the blog series on various platforms over the last few weeks have offered a number of critiques. People have said, look at my town, it’s declined and it’s not like you describe. Well that may be the case, as the restructuring of the economy has resulted in the collapse of certain industries, and the spatial redistribution of economic activity. Those reliant on large-scale commercial agriculture have unquestionably suffered, but in areas where land redistribution has occurred there has been a growth in other activities, as the blogs have shown. Equally, some large mines have closed in some places, while others (often smaller, more distributed) have opened elsewhere. This all means economic activity has a new spatial pattern, one that investment needs to be linked to if the multiplier effects are to be realised. While the economy is certainly depressed currently, and issues of cash liquidity and lack of investment are restricting growth seriously, it is not without potential, but the future spatial pattern of economic development will certainly not be the same as the past.

Others have argued that the new growth is not ‘real growth’ because it is informal. This is a common refrain, and one that needs more than this blog to tackle. But we must not simply dismiss the informal economy because it’s informal. It is massively important in Zimbabwe today and the basis of significant employment and generation of substantial numbers of livelihoods. It may not result in huge tax revenue streams, which is a problem, and it may be fragile, poorly remunerated and operating with poor working conditions, which is a problem too, but it is unquestionably the basis for significant accumulation and wide economic activity, linked to wider economic growth, and must not be ignored. Informal economies across Africa are huge, but poorly understood. This is perhaps especially the case in Zimbabwe, where research and statistical data and so much policy commentary seems to ignore the new dominant pattern, and the places – including the growing small towns and the new (mostly A1) resettlement areas – where things are really happening.

As the economy restructures – painfully, slowly and with all sorts of hardships resulting – there is an urgent need to rethink how we look at issues of economic development – and especially where. Small towns in new farming areas, I have argued in this blog series, are a good place to start.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

For further information on the history of small town planning and policy in Zimbabwe, see Wekwete, K. 1991. Growth Centre policy in Zimbabwe: with special reference to district service centres, in: Mutizwa-Mangiza, N. D., and A. H. J. Helmsing. Rural development and planning in Zimbabwe. Avebury.

 

1 Comment

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One response to “Small towns and economic development: lessons from Zimbabwe

  1. am

    A substantial increase in agricultural production would move things on.

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