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Hopes dashed in Zimbabwe as the economic crisis deepens

It is now a year since people came out onto the streets of Harare to celebrate the army-led ‘coup’s’ ushering in of a new post-Mugabe era. The year has not delivered the dreams and hopes of those on the streets, however, and now an economic crisis is enveloping the country once again.

Despite clear wins for ZANU-PF in the parliamentary elections, even in surprising places (see this interesting recent report focusing on Matabeleland), the July presidential elections between Emmerson Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa were disputed. In the aftermath, violence erupted on the streets and the ruthless backlash by the security forces resulted in civilian deaths that shocked the country, and the world.

The uncertainty surrounding the presidential elections, despite numerous international reports, has made international re-engagement difficult. The opposition has capitalized on this to try and push the Mnangagwa regime into concessions. Added to this, the failure to agree a long-term economic stabilization deal with the international finance institutions, so far, has resulted in an accelerating economic crisis. This has resulted in commodity shortages, a growth in a parallel currency market and rising inflation. As in 2006-08, the impacts on those in the cities, and particularly the middle classes, has become in the words of one commentator, ‘unbearable’.

The political roots of the crisis are becoming more and more openly debated. In an extraordinary outburst, presidential advisor Chris Mutsvanga named Kudakwashe Tagwirei, boss of the network of companies linked to Sakunda holdings, as getting preferential access to foreign exchange from the Reserve Bank and being central to manufacturing scarcities, particularly in the fuel market. Close ties to the political-military elite of influential business people who control the economy, and with this parts of the state have been exposed. Meanwhile, maverick politico, Acie Lumumba, the short-lived adviser to the new technocratic minister of finance, Mthuli Ncube, in a bizarre Facebook live broadcast made a dramatic set of allegations about RBZ corruption, the process of state capture and the role of ‘queen bee’ at the centre of the network. Social media speculation went wild, but these interventions only served to confirm what everyone knew already: some ZANU-PF factions and some in the security forces are intimately tied up with controlling oligarchic forces in the economy. This makes effective economic reform and stabilization extremely difficult, without getting rid of these networks of power and economic control.

In the midst of rising crisis, the MDC appears to be holding out for a renegotiation of power. But as Brian Raftopolous argues in a typically perceptive article, there are several problems with their approach.

“Firstly, as we have seen in other parts of the continent, crisis authoritarian states can maintain their rule for long periods of time through minimalist state forms of rule that combine a control of certain extractive forms of revenue with command over the central means of coercion. Moreover, as Paul Nugent points out, such states can combine coercive, productive and permissive forms of rule involving varying relations of coercion and consent and different episodes of negotiations and conflict between states and citizens. The reductionist view that economic crisis will deliver what the election could not is extremely precarious.

Secondly, the social base of the opposition, particularly in the now largely informalised urban sector, is likely to be further weakened by a deepening economic crisis. This is unlikely to result in more protests and a strengthening of the opposition presence in the public sphere. It could lead to a further retreat into individualised forms of survival and already well supported religious structures and their more optimistic ethereal futures.

Thirdly, the international pressure that the opposition is counting on will not take the forms of more open political conditionality in favour of the opposition. At present, key players in the international community are more concerned with keeping Zanu PF on the reform agenda than with any more open or surrogate support for the opposition as in the past. For many countries in the EU the stabilization agenda in countries like Zimbabwe remains a key factor in the face of all the changes in European politics, particularly around the massive migration issue that is currently dominating European politics.”

At the moment there remains a stand-off. While the government desperately seeks international political agreement for a stabilization programme, and the injection of liquidity into the economy, the opposition pushes for the maintenance of sanctions, holding out for political reforms and perhaps a sharing of power. It is a dangerous moment, with little sign of anyone shifting from entrenched positions.

Strangely, both main political parties seemingly agree on the broad contours of the way forward, and both are committed to a radical neoliberal reform package, with unknown, perhaps disastrous, consequences for the long-term. Currently debate on what types of reform are needed, and how Zimbabwe moves from this crisis mode is limited.

Raftopolous argues that, to move forward, “there is clearly a need for a new national dialogue, including but not just limited to, the major political parties”. The terms of any macro-economic stabilization programme alongside political reforms “should be the start of such a national discussion”, he argues, leading to “a serious critique of this currently shared economic policy”.

This is a hopeful, positive position that I share, but it currently has few backers, given limited evidence of progressive visions for economic policy from all sides. As argued before on this blog, unless a locally-developed response to the economic crisis emerges, rising inequality, lack of sustainability and capture – this time by new actors – will likely result. A future, resilient economy must therefore be rooted in the existing productive economy where most people work and gain a livelihood. Reform efforts therefore must focus on small-scale agriculture and the informal urban economy linked to area-based local economic development, and not expect large, external investments to do the job, even if they paper over the cracks temporarily.

Building long-term resilience for a broad-based economy that will reduce poverty and share wealth will take time. But small steps – most notably through providing reliable and cheap sources of funds to support farming and small businesses – can have a big impact.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and this version first appeared on Zimbabweland.

Photo credit: Flickr CC, Baynham Goredema

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The political economy of agricultural commercialisation in Zimbabwe

The Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium has recently produced a series of papers on the political economy of agricultural commercialisation. The paper on Zimbabwe by Toendepi Shonhe argues that “debates on Zimbabwe’s agricultural development have centred on different framings of agricultural viability and land redistribution, which are often antagonistic”. Yet, agricultural commercialisation pathways are “complex and differentiated” across the country.

As discussed a few weeks ago in relation to the thorny concept of ‘viability’, normative–political constructions of farming are at the centre of the debate about agricultural commercialisation pathways, with some arguing that ‘good’, ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ farming can only be large-scale farms, while others that ‘justice’, ‘poverty reduction’ and ‘equity’ ae best achieved through smallholder agriculture.

The paper – and associated policy brief– explore how these contrasting debates have played out in Zimbabwe over time, and what interests are aligned with different positions. Focusing on the post-2000 period after land reform, the research examines shifts in production and commodity marketing, showing how these have had an impact on commercialisation patterns. This in turn helps to reveal how power, state practice, and capital all influence accumulation for different groups of farmers.

These are the key messages from the briefing:

  • A new agrarian structure, and better access to agricultural financing, are shaping commercialisation patterns in Zimbabwe (although with the current economic crisis, this is again more challenging).
  • New, non-bank financing options are driving the production of food and cash crops in all farming sectors of Zimbabwe. These options include government-mediated command agriculture, independent contract farming and joint ventures.
  • Government support to the agricultural sector has changed over time, primarily as a result of shifting ideologies, and changing state capacity to finance the agricultural sector.
  • Both farmers and the government agree on the need for agricultural commercialisation, though often for different reasons. With links to global markets, cash crops are the main drivers of commercialisation.
  • Political patronage plays a significant role in determining agricultural policy, rendering ordinary farmers disillusioned with the political system, and resigned to merely ‘jump through hoops’ to make a living.
  • Political struggles over the control of the state and its limited resources revolve around land and agriculture as they have always in Zimbabwe, but now with greater confusion and uncertainty.

The on-going work in Mvurwi area shows how, “there is a disconnect between the day-to-day practices of local people trying to negotiate livelihoods by producing and selling crops, and the wider political machinations of Zimbabwe’s fraught political economy”, the paper argues. Patronage politics, subsidy regimes and selective state support certainly support certain elites, most people, the paper shows, must get on with life and engage in business in what is a highly uncertain, often risky context.

As the research shows, the insertion of contract farming and command agriculture support into the agricultural economy is profoundly shaping the directions of pathways of commercialisation, and the opportunities these offer to different people. But contracts and command subsidies are not available to everyone. For many smallholders, the paper notes “Zimbabwe’s wider political economy is irrelevant, and subsidy and support regimes are more symbolic than having any tangible effect”.

A combination of diminished state capacity in rural areas and because the reach of party politics and patronage – outside of election time – is fragmented and poorly coordinated, means only a few benefit from state support and patronage. Instead, in places like Mvurwi, “the local political economy is more about making deals with traders, input suppliers, contractors and others”, the paper argues.

Day-to-day concerns are the priority, rather than the high politics discussed in the media and academic political commentary. Living with the uncertainties of Zimbabwe’s political economy can be harsh: “A disillusioned rural majority therefore merely jump through the hoops of a shifting, disconnected and often corrupt political system, in order just to make a living”, the paper observes.

The policy brief concludes: “Today, commercial farming in Zimbabwe is at a crossroads, where political economy – perhaps more than factors of productivity, technology or labour – influences production and accumulation outcomes…..Political struggles over the control of the state and its limited resources revolve around land as they always have in Zimbabwe, but now with greater confusion and uncertainty”.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and this version first appeared on Zimbabweland.

Photo credit: Toendepi Shonhe


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Farm labour after land reform in Zimbabwe

A paper by myself, the late BZ Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba and Chrispen Sukume is just out in Development and Change (available open access). We asked, “What happens to labour when redistributive land reform restructures a system of settler colonial agriculture?” The answer is not obvious and, surprisingly, the question is not widely debated in Zimbabwe.

Debates about farm labour in southern Africa have not caught up with the times, we argue. Discussion of ‘farmworkers’ is often framed in terms of dispossession and victimhood, focusing on the significant displacements that occurred during land reform, but has not explored what has happened next. Labour unions and NGOs, meanwhile, emphasise formal labour rights, assuming a full-time work-force under a single employer. Neither of these perspectives help in getting to grips with how those former workers on large-scale, white-owned commercial farms, often still living in farm ‘compounds’, gain their livelihoods in the post-land reform setting. This is a vital issue and, with the exception of work by Walter Chambati, Sam Moyo and a few others, has largely been ignored by researchers in recent times.

How do former farmworkers gain a livelihood?

Based on several years of work in the tobacco growing area of Mvurwi in Mazowe district, the paper – Labour after Land Reform: The Precarious Livelihoods of Former Farmworkers in Zimbabwe – documents how a sample of former farmworkers currently gain a livelihood. We asked, how did farm labour — formerly wage workers on large-scale commercial farms — engage with the new agrarian structure following land reform? What new livelihoods have emerged since 2000? What new labour regime has evolved, and how does this transform our understanding of agricultural work and employment?

The survey and biographical data show how diverse, but often precarious, livelihoods are being carved out, representing what Henry Bernstein calls the ‘fragmented classes of labour’ of a restructured agrarian economy. We identified four different livelihood strategies, differentiated in particular by access to land. There are those who were allocated plots during or after the land reform and are now A1 land reform settlers, but were formerly farmworkers (or their sons). There are then those living in the compounds with plots of more than one hectare, including rented-in land. Then there are those with plots/gardens of up to one hectare. And, finally, there are those without land at all (or just small gardens by their houses), who are highly reliant on labouring and other livelihood activities.

These varied combinations of land access and labour practices make up diverse livelihoods, suggesting very different experiences of former farmworkers. Indeed, selling labour as a ‘farmworker’ is only a part of a much more diverse livelihood portfolio today, and the term ‘farmworker’ is in many cases redundant.

The analysis highlights the tensions between gaining new freedoms, notably through access to land, and being subject to new livelihood vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities are considerable, and the precarity of this diverse and numerous group of people living in the new resettlements and working on the farms allocated during land reform is emphasised through an analysis of household assets and activities. But within our sample, there are big differences. Despite access to limited land areas, and making use of skills developed when working on large commercial farms, some are accumulating and investing, provoking a process of differentiation, as some become more like smallholder petty commodity producers than ‘workers’.

Changing labour regimes: wider implications

The findings from Mvurwi are discussed in relation to wider questions relevant to Zimbabwe and southern Africa more broadly. As we observe, across southern Africa, and beyond, agricultural labour regimes are changing from more formal, regulated systems, centred on wage-work, with clear conditions of employment, to more informal systems, where ‘work’, as paid employment, is only one element of a range of livelihood activities, part of a complex bricolage of opportunities put together often under very difficult conditions.

This poorly understood reality is increasingly common, a consequence of wider processes of change under deregulation and neoliberal globalization. The reconfiguration of labour regimes, away from a clearly exploitative dependence on a commercial farmer, towards a more flexible, informal arrangement, does not mean that patterns of dependency and patronage disappear of course, as new social relations emerge between workers, brokers and new farmers, inflected by class, gender and age, affecting who gains what and how.

The question of wage labour, combined with self-employment and farm work, in agrarian change processes is frequently poorly understood, we argue. Yet the emergence of fragmented classes of labour, centred on diverse livelihoods, is a common phenomenon the world over, reconfiguring our understandings of labour and work in developmental processes. By understanding how former wage-earning farmworkers adapted to the radical agrarian restructuring that followed land reform and how they became incorporated in the new agrarian economy offers, we argue, important insights into the changing pattern of agrarian labour regimes, with relevance far beyond Zimbabwe.

Policy challenges

More specifically, our findings have important implications for policy thinking. As we note, tobacco production, now the mainstay of Zimbabwe’s fragile agricultural economy, is highly reliant on labour, yet this must be secured under a very different labour regime to what went before.

Some important new questions arise that need urgent attention. What labour rights do those living in the farm labour compounds have? What is the future of the former labour compounds in the new resettlements, where significant populations live? What other livelihood support is required, including access to land, to sustain the livelihoods of former farmworkers, now increasingly integrated in a new agrarian structure? Will, in the longer term, a more formalized, wage-work regime become reinstated, or will an informal wage economy combined with small-scale agriculture, involving diverse classes of labour, persist?

We hope that the paper will help open up debate about farm labour, going beyond the standard narratives and engaging with the empirical realities on the ground. Land reform has thrown up many next-generation challenges, and that of farm labour is one of the most crucial.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and this version first appeared on Zimbabweland.


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Zimbabwe’s latest crisis: it’s the economy – and politics, stupid!

The images of economic crisis in Zimbabwe are all too familiar. Queues for petrol and cash, commodity hoarding, parallel markets in currency, rising inflation and so on. It all seems reminiscent of the dark days of the mid 2000s, in the build-up to the full-blown crisis of the hyperinflationary collapse of 2008. This was not meant to be how the much-hailed second republic started out.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 election slogan, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ does ring true. Years of economic mismanagement, deep corruption and failure to invest, combined with sanctions, credit embargoes and investment freezes, have taken their toll. But the current crisis is also to do with politics, both domestic and international.

The dimensions of the economic crisis

Tony Hawkins, an economics professor at the University of Zimbabwe, recently gave a widely-circulated talk to the British Council on the economic travails of Zimbabwe. There was much to agree with in his summary of the situation.

The economy is uncompetitive, he argued, not helped by the appreciation of the US dollar by 17 percent since dollarization, the huge loss of value of the South African Rand and rising oil prices. Estimated 14% revenue increases from tobacco, gold and other minerals are offset by a massive hike in state expenditure, up 57%, exacerbated by election commitments to public servant wage hikes. The budget deficit has ballooned to $3.3 billion, with a projected trade gap of around $2.5 billion.

What’s more, he said, the total national debt now stands at a staggering $22 billion, now more than the GDP. Government borrowing continues to grow, crowding out the private sector, and putting pressure on available finance for investments, as people seek cash on the (expensive) parallel market. Inflationary pressures are also increasing dramatically therefore, with money supply far exceeding (formal) GDP growth.

But, despite the value of this description (repeated of course in numerous assessments by the IMF, the World Bank and other economists), his diagnosis of causes was only partially on target, and his solutions missed crucial dimensions.

Causes were laid largely at the door of domestic economic policy (or lack of it) and corruption by the ruling party. This, as is well documented, is a key part of the story. From Gideon Gono’s use of the reserve bank as a political tool in the ‘casino economy’ years to the massive expropriation of diamond resources, both show how the Zimbabwean economy has been destroyed from within.

This has not been the only story. The sanctions imposed following the land reform of 2000 took their toll too. While only targeting select individuals, and withdrawing aid from government led programmes, this signalled diplomatic disapproval from the West, and it had a major impact on patterns of economic support.

Aid programmes still continued but under a humanitarian label channelled through NGOs. But much more significant was the withdrawal of international finance and credit lines. This had a devastating impact and, even if not directed by official sanction policies, were their direct consequence. Despite the easing of diplomatic tensions in the post-Mugabe era, and the charm offensive that Mnangagwa has been engaging in from Davos to New York, the situation has not fundamentally changed.

Hawkins does point to the problem of ZDERA (the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, amended this year) in particular. This is the US law that prevents the US government supporting Zimbabwe at the IFIs, without implementing a set of political reforms. In the coming months, this will likely prevent the US rep at the IMF backing a recovery plan, making the position of others on the IMF board crucial if any changes to support Zimbabwe’s recovery are to be realised.

Reforming the economy

The new finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, knows all this, but does he have the leeway to change course? He is severely hampered by the political legacy of sanctions and other ‘restrictive measures’, and deep distrust across international actors. However, there have been some good signs. His interviews with Bloomberg and speeches around the world have mostly been impressive, and suggest that he is committed to a major economic restructuring.

Some of this will be tough, and will be highly political. A test of the new government’s commitment will be how far he is allowed to go. Already attempts at introducing taxation measures have resulted in protests. What happens when he is forced to cull the public sector, massively reducing the salary bill, or overhaul the currency system, which benefits those dealing on the black market, including powerful individuals well connected to the political system?

Clearly the stop-gap measure of a “multi-currency” environment that followed the abandonment of the Zimbabwe dollar and the adoption of the US dollar is no longer working. Local ‘bond notes’ were supposed to be backed by external hard currency finance, but are clearly no longer, and are fast losing value. Stalling the massive flow of hard currency out of Zimbabwe is vital, and this means ending the pretence of equivalence between greenbacks and bond notes. Sticking to the US dollar in a period when US protectionism is boosting its value is risky too, as it makes everything absurdly expensive. But setting up a new currency in such straitened times is not wise either, given the low levels of confidence in the economy.

What to do? Given the dire experiences of structural adjustment from 1991 – which in many ways set the scene for much of Zimbabwe’s current malaise – making the case for IMF stabilisation intervention, combined with a HIPC-style debt relief package, with all the raft of expected conditionalities does seem rash. But there really doesn’t seem to be any other option currently. The Chinese are fed up with Zimbabwe given its failure to pay back loans in the past, and the ‘socialist solidarity’ line has worn thin. Reluctantly, this may be the only route.

The centrality of the rural economy

Assuming a political route to reform can be created, it therefore matters a lot what such reforms look like, and how they are implemented (lessons from Greece and others of course). Where I fundamentally part company with Hawkins’ analysis is his disparaging rejection of the importance of the rural economy. Like so many conventional economists, he focuses on the urban, industrial sector, forgetting that this is dependent on a wider economic system that remains substantially small-scale, informal and rural. The distinctions between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ economies in Zimbabwe are irrelevant today: most of the economy is ‘informal’, and that’s where livelihoods are made.

In the rural areas this is especially so. And, as we have shown in our research over many years, this is vibrant, growing and generating employment in significant ways, particularly when linked to land reform areas that are producing surpluses and creating spin-off linkages in local economies. It is far from dead, as Hawkins suggests, but it is different to what went before. This is not backward-looking rural traditionalism, bound by archaic cultural norms, as Hawkins seems to suggest, but the new economy; one that everyone must get used to and support. For sure, it is the ZANU-PF support base, and the reason they won the parliamentary elections, but that makes it even more important that the government gets its reforms right for rural people, as well as the urban middle classes.

The small steps towards a positive dynamic of rural growth spurred on by land reform however stalls dramatically when the wider economy is in crisis. With no liquidity, investments dry up, and with a lack of credit, the financing of new operations cannot occur. If inflation kicks in, as it is now (some estimate that annual inflation is touching 50 percent already), then the value of goods is uncertain, and economic transactions are risky. The result is that the economic dynamism ceases, and livelihoods are affected up and down value chains, from agricultural producers to traders to processers to wholesalers to retailers and consumers.

This is what happened in the mid-2000s, and again is what is happening now. But rather than dismiss rural people and areas as economically backward, somehow culturally unable to engage with a modern economy, policymakers and economic advisers need to appreciate the potential of the agrarian economy, and encourage investment. Simply wishing an industrial revival without a core agrarian productive base supporting the mass of the population is foolish, especially in Zimbabwe’s context, as a small economy operating in a highly competitive global environment.

Wider stabilisation, debt write-offs and addressing inflation and currency instability is vital at the macroeconomic level and must be central to Mthuli Ncube’s agenda. But his next step must be to set up the type of investment strategy that allows a dispersed, largely informal economy to thrive, and contribute to growth and employment in multiple ways for long-term, sustained and equitable recovery.

Only then will links be made that allow the industrial and service sectors to thrive, and taxation and so government revenue raising to be applied. The post land reform economy does not look like that of the 1990s in the earlier adjustment era, or the post UDI sanctions period in 1980. Big ticket ‘modern’ investments in agriculture, tourism, maybe even some industries, will be important, but they must not undermine or take attention away from the key challenge, which is supporting the real, predominantly rural, economy where most people make their living.

It’s politics, stupid!

The on-going negotiations with the IMF and the wider diplomatic and donor community are of course not just about economic restructuring, investment and financial prudence. They are also (of course) about politics. With Nelson Chamisa and the opposition MDC still not recognising the results of the elections, their lobbying of western governments continues.

Their strategy is unclear, but it seems to be to encourage the US in particular to maintain sanctions and the ZDERA law, with the aim of extracting political concessions for the long-term. You can see the rationale, but the consequence is that the economy is nose-diving and people are suffering; if not from cholera due to lack of investment in urban infrastructure, certainly from growing economic hardships, even if this is only queuing for petrol at night. This may backfire, with the opposition seen as holding the country hostage, undermining recovery for political gains.

Calls for demilitarising the state apparatus as part of conditions are appropriately central to many demands. The latest bogey-man for the international community is of course the Vice President General Chiwenga. But, with ZANU-PF, despite the new, PR-branded version that President Mnangagwa is projecting, a securitised state is likely to persist, even after the army has returned to the barracks or swapped uniforms for suits. A technocratic-military state is a feature of the current dispensation, and by some seen as a positive route to implementing a state-led (aka ‘command’) developmentalist policy, in the mode of Kagame in Rwanda or previously Meles in Ethiopia.

Where next?

There are divisions amongst the western diplomatic community on how to move forward. Some take a pragmatic stance and argue that a stabilisation bailout will create stability, and allow the economy to function, arguing that conditions for future elections and a deeper embedding of (western-style, liberal) democracy will emerge only when the country is not in crisis mode. Others make the case that a crisis of legitimacy following the elections means that this is the moment to exert pressure on Mnangagwa and exact the maximum concessions in favour of the opposition’s stance. Economic crisis is a price worth paying if political reform emerges, goes the argument. Within ZANU-PF and the MDC, as well as commentators not linked to any party, all shades of opinion exist.

What all agree is that a return to 2007-08 is not desirable, and that action to avert this needs to happen soon. And I would add: a focus on supporting the informal sector and the agrarian economy – and the linkages beyond – is vital to any way forward.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and this version first appeared on Zimbabweland.

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What is a ‘viable’ farm? Implications for land reform and investment

There are many misconceptions about farming in southern Africa, and one of the most insidious is the notion of ‘viability’. A narrow economistic version has predominated that is based on a normative vision of farming based on full-time, large-scale commercial production. But taking a wider view, what is viable can take different forms more appreciative of the diverse ways farming is intertwined with wider livelihoods, and across different scales.

This debate is important as policymakers consider land reform and investment in agriculture and rural development. In South Africa a new advisory panel has been established to consider different approaches to delivering land reform, while in Zimbabwe the new government is gearing up for investment in the agricultural sector.

In both countries the histories of debates about what is viable resonate strongly today. Colonial narratives about ‘good’, ‘proper’, ‘modern’ farming persist, and are perpetuated by powerful forces resisting land redistribution and aiming for particular styles of investment. Such narratives are deeply embedded in institutions, planning frameworks and monitoring and evaluation systems. Too often the dominant framing has been allied to strong normative, racially-inflected, colonial assumptions, supported today by well-articulated political and commercial interests, hooked into a long history of the assumed benefits of a dualistic agrarian system where modern, large-scale agriculture is seen as the ideal. Shedding these blinkered perspectives can be tough, but is certainly necessary.

Some years ago now, Ben Cousins and I wrote a piece – Contested paradigms of ‘viability’ in redistributive land reform: perspectives from southern Africain the Journal of Peasant Studies on the tricky debate about viability, drawing on material from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. You can read it here. It made the basic case that a singular, narrow, technocratic, economistic version of viability distorts debate about futures of farming, and can act to undermine attempts at redistribution and a more diverse approach to investment in farming.

By creating a seemingly technical discourse around minimum farm size, economic units, carrying capacity, utilisation, land subdivision, size ceilings and so on, particular visions of viability become enacted through policy and planning without interrogation. But each of these concepts is premised on a set of assumptions. What is the minimum, for whom, and what if other sources of income from off-farm are important? The normative, political dimensions of such perspectives become clear when their history is revealed.

For example, minimum farm sizes (and so appropriate utilisation) were established in the colonial era on the assumption that (white) farmers would be full-time and the income derived from farming according to certain agronomic assumptions would be the same as a senior (white) civil servant. A black, African farmer, offered land in ‘the reserves’ would be expected to have a much lower, subsistence income, and so less land.

So if there is no one version of what is viable, what alternatives are there to the ones that are still assumed to be technically correct, despite their dubious histories? In an ambitious comparison in the paper (Table 1), we contrast framings derived from neo-classical economics, new institutional economics, livelihoods approaches (both developmentalist and welfarist), radical political economy and Marxism. All offer different versions of ‘viability’. Taking a broader view, where for example, sustainable livelihoods, class, gender difference and equity are important, suggests a very different set of options for planning and policy.

In the paper we pose a number of key questions emerging from the different framings, linked in turn to practical responses and monitoring and evaluation criteria (Table 2):

“From the neo-classical economics perspective, the key question is: how efficient is production on redistributed land? A concern with productive efficiency cannot be dismissed; policies that promote the optimal use of scarce land, labour, and capital are important, while not accepting a simplistic emphasis on ‘market forces’ as the driver of wealth creation.

From the new institutional economics perspective, the key question is: what factors and conditions influence the efficiency of different scales of production? Questions of scale of production are highly relevant in the southern African context, and so a focus on factors (including institutions and policies) that influence the efficiency of a variety of forms and scales of production is important, while not accepting the neoinstitutionalist premise of a pervasive inverse relationship between scale and efficiency.

From a livelihoods perspective, the key question is: what are the multiple sources of livelihood for land reform beneficiaries? In southern Africa, a focus on the multiple livelihood sources of poor people would help avoid an overly-narrow focus on farming alone, while not being blind to the structural roots of poverty. From a welfarist perspective, the key question is: what difference does food production make to the household welfare of land reform beneficiaries?

From a contemporary radical populist perspective, the key question is: does land reform transform exploitative agrarian structures and food regimes? In the southern African setting, one might therefore take on board a central concern with the need to reconfigure food production regimes and associated agrarian structures (at both the national and international scale), including the distribution of productive enterprises and associated property rights, and their performance in terms of output and net income, while not accepting an over-emphasis on the common interests of ‘peasants’ or ‘the rural poor’.

From a Marxist perspective, the key question is: what dynamics of class differentiation and accumulation occur within land reform? A central concern with evaluating the economics of land reform in terms of a wider concept of social efficiency and the contribution of agriculture to the growth of society’s productive capacities would be an important contribution. This would combine with a focus on the class and gender relations that underpin the organisation of production and of the agrarian structure, while not accepting the idealisation of large-scale farming in some strands of the tradition, or an overly-narrow focus on class dynamics to the exclusion of other relevant factors.”

Shifting the debate about viability (and so what constitutes ‘success’) away from the narrow, technocratic economism that has dominated to date means taking alternative framings seriously. Smallholder farming is not just large, commercial farming scaled down: there are different logics, different practices, different cultures, and so different measures of what is viable. If a future for agriculture and rural development is to be envisaged, then multiple versions of ‘viability’ (and success) – and so investment and policy focus – must be embraced.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and this version first appeared on Zimbabweland.


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Open for business: what does investment look like on the ground?

Last week I was at the at the African Studies Association of the UK (ASA) conference in Birmingham. I was co-hosting, with my colleague Jeremy Lind (whose earlier blog this one draws from), a fantastic stream of five panels and 17 papers. Drawing on rich and recent empirical evidence from Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Somaliland, the discussions covered the emergence of investment corridors, investments in oil, minerals and renewable energy and the implications of the rush for land for the dynamics of circulation, accumulation and patterns of social differentiation. Listening to the presentations, I was struck by the potential lessons for Zimbabwe, as the country becomes ‘open for business’.

Across the drylands of eastern Africa, the past ten years have seen the spread of large-scale investments in infrastructure, resources and land. In the past these areas were insignificant to states in the region and large capital from beyond – at least compared to the region’s agrarian highlands and Indian Ocean coast. Yet, the recent rush to construct pipelines, roads, airports, wind farms, and plantations signals a new spatial politics that binds the pastoral margins ever closer to state power and global capital.

Being ‘open for business’ in order to develop infrastructure, resources, and towns as new industrial centres and markets is often seen very positively. State officials and donor agencies view these as part of generating growth; bringing the margins into the core of the national economy. Some see such investments as a precursor to peacebuilding of restive frontiers, ushering in stability through diversification and the creation of new livelihoods.

As Zimbabwe’s new government repeats the mantra of being ‘open for business’, seeking investment from any source is seen as an imperative in order to rescue the economy from the doldrums. The new cabinet is aimed to highlight technocratic competence, banishing the reputation of corrupt neglect. Certainly, President Mnangagwa’s choices have been widely hailed, and the appointment of Prof. Mthuli Ncube as finance minister was a smart move. His credentials and connections signal a new way of doing things. With a training in mathematical finance economics, a post at Oxford and experience with the private sector finance advice and the African Development Bank, he will be central to galvanising much-needed investment across all sectors.

But what investment will emerge? And who will it benefit? Certainly, Zimbabwe’s economy is still seen as high risk, so early investors may seek to strike a hard bargain, and safeguards, whether environmental or social, may get short shrift. As our ASA panels showed, large-scale investments have far-reaching consequences for the future directions of development. Many powerful actors are involved, from international corporations and financiers to states and local elites, but important questions are raised about who gains and who loses out, and whether such large-scale projects do indeed deliver poverty-reducing development as is often claimed.

Early debates on large-scale investments in eastern Africa’s pastoral areas turned on headline grabbing figures of the size of proposed projects, such as the $23 billion price tag for the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor project (LAPSSET), or the scale of proposed land deals for commercial agriculture, such as the 300,000 hectare land lease (since cancelled) to Indian Karuturi Global in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region.

A decade on, the large-scale investments have advanced in a more piecemeal way as challenges of implementation have mounted. LAPSSET’s grand modernist vision has not materialised in a sudden multi-billion dollar bang but rather emerged incrementally, such as through the completion of the Isiolo-Moyale highway and the recent opening of Isiolo’s airport. Mass expropriations to establish large-scale commercial farms have by-and-large not come to pass, as only a small part of an agreed area is actually farmed.

But the focus on ‘opening up’ the frontier through new infrastructure and investments in land and resources has had other consequences. Proposed infrastructure and investments have ignited intense competition for and revaluation of land as local elites, and other domestic and foreign investors, jostle to claim tracts of land. In and around Isiolo, which is being reimagined as an industrial centre and gateway to northern Kenya, proposed investments have set in motion an economy of anticipation as diverse actors rush to collectively and individually lay exclusive claims to land at the town’s edges. A similar dynamic plays out in Lokichar – the base of operations for nascent oil development in Kenya’s Turkana County – where fencing has multiplied around town as area residents race to claim plots to develop housing, shops and guest houses.

Development of oil, wind and geo-thermal reserves has fuelled other competitions around ‘local content’ – the industry term for procuring goods and services from local suppliers and workers. The footprint of these developments, and the arrival of workers and contractors from outside of local areas, sit uncomfortably with the reality of work opportunities that are thinly spread and temporary. Protests by residents and political leaders in south Turkana halted Kenya’s Early Oil Pilot Scheme in June barely days after it was launched to great fanfare by President Uhuru Kenyatta. Operations only resumed in late August after political concessions to address local demands for greater opportunities for work, contracts and tenders.

In this and other instances of protest, local elites have advanced their own interests by playing on the legitimate concerns of residents living adjacent to development sites concerning inclusion, rights and compensation. Various local interlocutors have positioned themselves as key liaisons between investors and communities in and around sites of operational activity, including political aspirants, ward and sub-county administrators, brokers, elders, seers, and young people. Local capital has been the greatest beneficiary of investments in oil in Turkana, or wind in Kenya’s Marsabit County. Wealthier local elites – many with connections in politics or who have worked for international relief or church organisations – have constructed rental housing, guesthouses, bars and restaurants.

Thus, while the impacts and influences of large-scale investments still unfold, the early signs can be seen. New territorialisations, local contestations and struggles, and enrichment of local elites are all part of an emerging picture. Some investments are proposed and never take off, but nevertheless reconfigure land use and local political and social relations.

As we heard in Birmingham, it’s a complex picture, and one that continues to unfold in a very fast-moving setting. Zimbabwe is only now dreaming of such investments, and state efforts will be energised to seek them out. However there are lessons to be learned from eastern Africa. Investments certainly transform, but there are always winners and losers. This is worth remembering as Zimbabwe opens its borders to all-comers with money to invest.

This post was written in part by Ian Scoones and this version first appeared on Zimbabweland. Thanks to Jeremy Lind for the original blog, and to all the presenters at the ‘Precarious Prospects’ stream of the ASA UK conference.

Photo credit (from Turkana, Kenya): Evans Otieno

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NEW PAPER – Medium-scale farms in Africa: history lessons from Zimbabwe

‘Medium-scale’ farms as seen as potential drivers of future agricultural growth in Africa. In Zimbabwe, much hope is vested in A2 farms allocated at land reform becoming productive, with hopes pinned on investment flowing following the election. The A2 farms, averaging around 100 ha in extent, will be a major focus of policy attention in the coming years, as attempts are made to resuscitate the commercial sector. These are also the areas where the political-military elite now firmly in power own land, and there will be multiple political and economic incentives to invest in the A2 land reform areas.

But what will be the future of such medium-scale commercial farms? Can we look to historical experience to suggest possible trajectories? What will happen to the A2 farms several generations on? Will we see a progressive evolution of increasing commercialisation and investment driven by market forces as is sometimes assumed, or will a greater diversity of outcomes arise, as chance, necessity and contingency play their part? A new paper is just out in the journal Africa (open access) that asks these questions.

The paper draws on an historical and contemporary assessment of what were called ‘native purchase areas’ in Zimbabwe. These were medium-scale farms in todays’ parlance, established for black farmers by the colonial government from the 1930s. Through a study of Mushagashe area, we asked what’s happened since, and why?

Structural transformations

A number of recent studies have documented the growth of ‘medium-scale’ farms across Africa, from Ghana to Malawi to Zambia to Kenya. ‘Investor farmers’ – local rural elites, retired civil servants and urbanites wanting a rural base – are creating a new dynamic as land markets – both formal and informal – emerge, and rural traditional leaders, government officials and others get involved in the process, accruing personal benefits along the way.

This redistribution of land towards a new elite results in processes of land dispossession and rural proletarianisation, but also investment, skill development and economic linkage effects between new medium-scale farms and the smallholder plots that surround them. For many, despite the negative consequences for some (perhaps many), this dynamic is seen as the future: a ‘structural transformation’ of the agrarian setting, offering many opportunities for growth and investment.

In Zimbabwe, the land reform of 2000 created a category of medium-scale farms – the A2 schemes. Around 25,000 such farms were allocated, ranging in sizes from around 20 ha (especially with irrigation) to over 500 ha, in dry areas. Like in other neighbouring countries, this has resulted in a new agrarian structure, complemented in Zimbabwe’s case by a massive increase also of smallholder agriculture.

The new A2 farmers have a similar social and economic profile to elsewhere: urban connections, business people, retirees, and they are also often well-connected politically. Unlike elsewhere the new A2 farms did not emerge from a land market, but from direct allocation by the state, subdividing large-scale commercial farms and estates. Although allocations were notionally done on the basis of a formal application process, including the submission of a business plan and a vetting of applicants in terms of qualification, capital availability and investment ideas, this often didn’t happen. Instead, in multiple cases, there was a well-documented pattern of corruption and patronage, especially around election times, when politically- and military-connected elites grabbed farms.

The result has been a mixed set of outcomes for A2 farms. Some have done very well, investing and producing; many though have not, and the farms are languishing. Very often this is due to the lack of capital and finance, which has not been forthcoming due to lack of collateral security. The process of issuing 99 year leases has been painfully slow, and for a variety of reasons the banks have been reluctant until recently to accept them as guarantees. The general lack of liquidity in the economy due to recurrent crises has also hampered investment.

The recent studies of medium-scale farms across Africa have focused on farm structure (in the MSU studies they have taken a huge range of sizes from 5-200 hectares to represent this group) and who owns the farms, and largely not their fortunes as productive enterprises, patterns of investment and long-term viability. Our new studies under the DFID-supported APRA (Agricultural Policy Research in Africa) programme, which is linked to a set of MSU studies led by Thom Jayne, is looking at A2 farms: investigating their sizes, ownership patterns and through some detailed surveys in Mvruwi and Masvingo, investigating both production and investment.

Most post-land reform studies have focused on the A1 smallholder farms (appropriately so, given they are the majority), so this will be the first in-depth assessment of the A2 farms, beyond very selective audits carried out by the state a decade or more ago. This will help us understand whether the dynamic in Zimbabwe, generated by the A2 allocations in land reform, replicate or contrast with, what has been found in other countries in the region.

Native Purchase Areas 80 years on

In addition to this study, our work has been looking at longer-term histories, and a previous allocation of ‘medium-scale’ farms (also averaging 100 ha) from the 1930s in Zimbabwe. These are the Native Purchase Areas and an earlier blog series has highlighted some of the findings already. Our new open access paper in Africa synthesises and extends the analysis, based on Mushagashe small-scale commercial farming area near Masvingo.

Our findings show that unbridled optimism (or indeed pessimism) about the future of medium-scale farms is unwarranted. The MSU studies from across Africa have spotted an important shift in size structure, but they tell us little about the future. The idea that there is a linear evolution of farm systems from smallholder to medium-scale to large-scale commercial, as land areas consolidate and market forces drive comparative advantage needs to be challenged.

The big debates about structural transformation in agriculture currently being revived in agricultural economics are often starkly ahistorical. They assume simple, unidirectional evolutionary change as incentives shift. But there’s a lot else that goes on besides. When we look at history in detail – as we did for Mushagashe, but more impressively Sara Berry did for Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia – we see that commercialisation doesn’t happen like this. There are stops and starts, booms and busts, generational changes, policy shocks and so on. History is about contingency, conjucture and chance, not predictable, linear evolution.

As we found in Mushagashe, 80 years on some farms were thriving; others had been but were languishing now; others had plans for the future, but weren’t getting going; while others had been abandoned, or were in the process of being so. Still others had different views of the land: this was home, somewhere to seek refuge from ‘communal area’ life, or where other family members could be settled, in what, over generations, had become more like villages than conventional farms.

Commercialisation we found wasn’t a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. For some it was the classic pattern of increasing external inputs, greater deployment of labour and higher, more marketed outputs. But for others commercialisation was selective: in projects run by particular family members, or in particular plots, where water was available.

Lessons from history

While history cannot predict the future, it can help us ask questions about what might be. And the Native Purchase Area lessons documented in the new paper suggest that it is unwise to be too gung-ho about the future of medium-scale farms in Africa. The restructuring of farm sizes we are seeing now will have many outcomes, and the sort of processes that unfolded in Mushagashe since the early 1930s will likely play a part in creating a wide diversity, both in the A2 farms and in other medium-scale farms in the region.

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

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