Tag Archives: Michael Lipton

Why is IDS a special institution?

ids timeline

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. I have been working here for a shocking 40% of this time, and in the week of a major anniversary conference, I thought I should jot a few thoughts down on why IDS has been and remains special.

In 1966, the Institute was founded with Dudley Seers as the first director. It was designated a ‘special institution’ by the UK government, with a particular mandate for research and training. In the period following the end of colonialism, Britain had a special role and needed a special institution. The project of ‘development’ in the ‘Third World’ back then was not supposed to last 50 years. But today with a different focus and new challenges the need for critical, engaged research and training is needed perhaps even more than ever.

Critical traditions

But what for me is special, and why have I remained committed to IDS for now more than 20 years? There have been many tributes, reflections and summary histories offered, but none for me capture the importance of IDS’ radical, critical traditions: the ability to challenge orthodoxies, to speak truth to power, and to translate this into action. Being neither a purely academic institution, nor a NGO or think tank, but a hybrid, not fettered by the constraints and limitations of either, is very important. It can be uncomfortable; but that’s the point.

When I first came to IDS in 1995, there was always a classic set-piece debate between Michael Lipton and Robert Chambers at the beginning of each academic year. They represented two different views on development, held productively in tension. Of course they agreed more than the performance suggested, but it was a useful highlight of how a common normative commitment to progressive change could be looked at through very different lenses: between top-down and bottom-up, between macro-structural and micro-people focused analyses, between economics and wider social sciences, and so on. Using diverse approaches, encapsulated in the 1993 classic, States and Markets, IDS research over many years has challenged what became the dominant neoliberal paradigm, encapsulated in its most extreme ideological form by the ‘Washington Consensus’.

In the last 20 years, these debates have continued in different forms. There have been many excellent contributions that have taken the stance represented more by the Lipton side of the debate – from looking at industrial clusters and value chains to the economic role of the rising powers – as well as many that have emphasised more the Chambers-type perspectives – including the on-going work on participation, citizenship and popular politics.

But actually the most challenging contributions have been when such perspectives have been in dialogue. This is only possible in a cross-disciplinary institution, where the drag of narrow disciplinary specialisms – and the horrific metric-dominated assessment approaches that go with this today – do not limit interaction and creativity. Let me highlight a few of these areas (of many), where I think IDS work (and crucially that of its global network of partners) has been especially exciting.


One area that I have been fairly centrally involved in, and I think is quintessentially IDS, is work on livelihoods. Indeed with both Chambers and Lipton involved, this was from the beginning a syncretic endeavour. When I produced the 1998 IDS Working Paper on the sustainable livelihoods framework, both reviewed it. And indeed the framework – with its long back history involving many people from Jeremy Swift to Susanna Moorhead to Richard Longhurst, among others – was the result of just these conversations: an approach explicitly aimed at involving economists, yet not forgetting the social, political and institutional. More recently I have reflected on the limitations, particularly as applied in development practice, and argued for a more structural, political economy perspective as central to livelihoods approaches.

States and citizens

This tension between wider structural, political-economic analysis and more locality-focused, participatory understandings was perhaps best illustrated during the 2000s when IDS hosted two of the early DFID Development Research Centres – one on the state and one on citizenship, led by two formidable political scientists – Mick Moore and John Gaventa. With IDS by then exclusively reliant on external, tied support from different donors, inevitably projects had to respond to the contours of the funding environment, and this slightly odd division reflected that in DFID at the time. But hosted within one institution it allowed for a productive, if at times tetchy, debate. Does citizen action construct states, or do states construct citizens? And what do states and citizens constitute anyway? Both centres provided an important challenge, once again, to the neoliberal versions being touted elsewhere.

Gender and empowerment

Work on gender empowerment has been a central feature of work at IDS and Sussex since the 1970s, and the classic contributions of Kate Young and Annie Whitehead. Naila Kabeer, Anne Marie Goetz, Andrea Cornwall and many others followed the tradition, offering challenging scholarship rooted in real struggles. But here too the important tension between structural change versus collective organisation from below played out again. In feminist analyses of course the personal is always political – and vice versa. However in discussions of ‘empowerment’ we see different strands, ranging from those focusing on economic empowerment and formal rights, versus those emphasising individual agency, the politics of the body and sexuality. Debating these dimensions has been a massively important contribution.

The politics of knowledge

Whether taking a more structural view or one more focused on individual or collective agency, knowledge framings matter. The politics of knowledge has been especially emphasised in IDS work on the environment, which really took off in a big way from the early 1990s. As Robert Chambers memorably asked: whose reality counts? The now classic 1996 book, The Lie of the Land, edited by Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns, asked why it was that so often environmental management and policy in Africa – from the colonial era to the present – does not respond to realities on the ground, and systematically ignores local knowledges. The answer of course is politics – and how experts, embedded in institutions, understand the world.

Environment and sustainability

This theme of the politics of the policy process has been a central theme of IDS work on environment and resources over 20 years. Building on strong connections with IDS’ sister institution at Sussex, the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), also celebrating 50 years this year, we jointly launched the STEPS Centre in 2006, with ESRC funds, and with Melissa Leach and Andy Stirling I have had the privilege of jointly directing the Centre since then. Here a highly productive synergy between the concerns of development studies and science and technology studies has unfolded over the past decade. With knowledge, politics, and power central, we too have struggled with understanding ‘pathways to sustainability’ that at once capture the relational agency of diverse actors and the wider conditioning effects of political economy. Once again a cross-disciplinary engagement has been absolutely essential –and immensely exciting, intellectually and practically.

Making a difference

None of these research efforts, often lasting long periods, with multiple funders, and diverse research teams at Sussex and beyond, is aimed solely at producing outputs from esteemed academic journals (although there have been plenty of these). All IDS researchers are committed to change: generating ideas to make a difference. In the world of often pointless impact case studies and metrics this may sound glib; but political engagement matters not just to analysis, but also to practice.

The first two images of the official but rather selective IDS 50th anniversary timeline are one of Stanmer House, a very English country house in the South Downs, near the campus of the University of Sussex where IDS was first based, and a Warhol-esque picture of Chairman Mao. It is these sort of contrasts, tensions and yes contradictions that keeps IDS on its toes, and makes it, despite the funding pressures, an exciting place to work – and really does make IDS a special institution.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland



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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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Transforming Zimbabwe’s agrarian economy: why smallholder farming is important

In a recent article in the Cape Times , prompted by Max du Preez’s review of Joe Hanlon and colleague’s book, Tony Hawkins (professor of economics at UZ) and Sholto Cross (research fellow at UEA) make the case that Zimbabwe’s land reform has been a disaster, and that a smallholder, ‘peasant’ farming is not a route to economic growth.

Beyond the wholly inappropriate ad hominem attack on Hanlon (respectable newspapers should not publish such insults I believe – although they have printed a response), what is their actual argument? The views of a neoliberal economist and a one-time communist should be interesting I thought.

The full-page article starts with a slightly bizarre critique of what has become to be known as ‘peasant studies’, a strand of academic work that has built over the years (it’s the 40th anniversary of the Journal of Peasant Studies this year – and you can read 40 of the ‘classics’ in a free virtual issue – just sign in, it’s quick and easy!) that examines the dynamics of change in agrarian societies. They pinpoint the work of Frank Ellis at UEA and those at Sussex, including myself – but probably more appropriately Michael Lipton – who have advocated a smallholder path to economic development.

But it is a very odd caricature of these positions. There are very few who argue for a permanent condition of subsistence peasantry, somehow preserved in aspic. The point is that as a labour intensive, efficient form of production, small-scale agriculture, given the right support, can be an important driver of economic growth and poverty reduction (inclusive, pro-poor growth to use the current jargon). Diversification out of agriculture is an important dynamic too, as Frank Ellis’ work has shown from across Africa. As Michael Lipton argues in his magisterial book (now thankfully available in paperback), based on a mass evidence and experience, land reform can be an important spur to such a transformation. This is the foundation for the so-called East Asian economic miracles – in Korea, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere.

This process of change is always dynamic, and takes time. Resettlement success, just as wider economic change resulting from large-scale redistribution, is never immediate, as Bill Kinsey and Hans Binswanger have shown. Restructuring of agricultural production has to be combined with the reconfiguration of supply industries and wider value chains. And following any redistributive land reform, there are inevitable processes of differentiation among agrarian classes. Some end up with larger plots, some smaller, others as labourers. It is the well-known multiplier effects of small-scale agriculture that can create economic opportunities elsewhere, and provide other non-farm livelihood opportunities, and so broader based growth. Migration to urban areas is also important, but maintaining a rural base as part of a wider social security mechanism is also crucial. And, yes, as the economy grows, there is a greater pull towards higher paid, industrial jobs and people leave the countryside over time. In their article, Hawkins and Cross forget this historical experience, and misinterpret the experience of China. Ha-Joon Chang has written a brilliant piece in JPS that is well worth a read if you want to get to grips with the comparative historical lessons – from Europe, Asia, Latin America and beyond.

Such transformations are therefore long-term processes, and always highly context specific. In the developmental states of East Asia (and elsewhere, and earlier in Europe), the state has an important role to play: protecting people and new businesses, and so guiding and nurturing the transition through targeted incentives and subsidies. You cannot expect the existing arrangement to be appropriate to a new scenario, so it’s important to facilitate the change of the wider agro-industrial base. What we are seeing in Zimbabwe is not so much “deindustrialisation” but a fundamental restructuring. Supporting such a transformation is essential, and this requires investment – something starkly absent in Zimbabwe due to a bankrupt government, a lack of private finance and donors refusing engagement due to sanctions.

Hawkins and Cross appear to reject such an agrarian vision for Zimbabwe. A welter of statistics are presented that fail to engage with the now substantial evidence base on Zimbabwe’s rural economy, presenting once again dubious production, employment, displacement and GDP figures to support their argument. Without reviewing the data (in Hanlon et al’s book, as well as ours, Matondi’s, Moyo and Chambati’s and many others), they proclaim that Zimbabwe’s land reform has been a failure, and that only option for economic growth in Zimbabwe is the old model of a large-scale commercial agricultural sector, combined with industrial manufacturing, reclaiming the assumed halcyon days of the 1990s (which of course they were not).

This view is deeply problematic. A focus on the large-scale agricultural sector may produce some growth, although in the globally competitive markets of today it is unlikely to produce much, but will it produce jobs and livelihoods? Jobless growth creates social divisions, inequality and pressure on the state to provide social protection to the economically disenfranchised. Look at the ‘third world’ in Europe and you can see the challenges. Zimbabwe’s own history, from the liberation war to the events of 2000, should show anyone that a return to an economic structure dominated by a few, but excluding the majority is not a politically viable option, even if it made any economic sense (which is very doubtful).

Hawkins and Cross seem blind to the opportunities of the new agrarian structure, rejecting these out of hand. Have they done any field research I wonder (I could not find any – only multiple ‘opinion’ articles from Hawkins)? Research from diverse sources has shown how across the new resettlements there are large numbers of new farmers ‘accumulating from below’ – generating surpluses, investing and accumulating. Not everyone, but enough to generate an economic dynamic that creates investment and employment. This has been done with vanishingly little external support. What more could be done if such support was larger and more effectively directed? Hawkins and Cross begrudgingly acknowledge the successes of some communal farmers in the 1980s, but this time the impact could be much wider, as there are more people involved, and they are geographically spread. In our book we argue for a form of local economic development that capitalises on this new agrarian dynamic, rooted in smallholder farming, but spinning out to new businesses and value chains. The new farmers are creating new local economies – currently small-scale, but with clear opportunities for generating further economic linkages.

Take the tomato farmers in Wondedzo resettlement areas near Masvingo – one of the case studies being documented by the PLAAS project on non-farm economies. Recognising the importance of the local market, they have invested in small-scale irrigation pumps, cleared land near the river areas, and have started to produce vegetables on a large scale. As their businesses have grown, they have employed more people, mostly women from nearby areas, and have worked with suppliers to get their crops to market. This has generated more employment along the value chain, with traders, transporters, retailers, supermarket chains and others becoming involved. Several have bought new one tonne trucks in the last year, to ensure prompt delivery to market. Again, this has brought new economic activity, with drivers, mechanics and others finding work. Input suppliers are attracted to the area, offering seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, piping, pump spare parts and more. And all of this is happening in the new land reform areas – without external support; yes on a small scale, but with significant cumulative impacts.

By area this sort of economic activity generates far more jobs and livelihoods than the large-scale commercial farms ever did. Being economically and socially integrated within rural settings, not set apart as was the case before, the multiplier effects are greater. Sales occur to supermarkets but also to small-scale traders – women who travel by bus to other towns and business centres to sell vegetables, sometimes processing them too to add value and to avoid losses.

But of course an agricultural economy cannot be just small-scale. The new agrarian structure of Zimbabwe is ‘tri-modal’, with a majority being small-scale (in the communal, A1 and old resettlement areas), but there are also medium scale commercial farms (A2) and the large-scale estates. Each can seek out their comparative advantages, and specialise production and marketing appropriately. But the important point is that there are now much greater opportunities for interaction – through contract farming, sharecropping, labour and market exchanges, and so on. This sort of integrated approach across farm scales to agricultural and rural development can have many spin-offs, and appropriately banishes the old dualism – a separation between ‘peasant’ agriculture and ‘modern’ commercial agriculture with its stark racial and economic divides – firmly to the past.

Hawkins and Cross seem to wish that this returns. They argue – on quite what basis it is not clear – that this is the only route to economic recovery for Zimbabwe. Yet they seem to reject the potentials of the dynamic entrepreneurialism and economic multipliers of the new agrarian system. With the potential of substantial state revenues from mining (as yet not fully captured of course), this is a moment when Zimbabwe could and should become southern Africa’s new developmental state, rebalancing the economy, and directing and supporting development in ways that allows for long-term, inclusive, poverty-reducing growth, initially rooted in smallholder production, but always transforming, as the economy rebuilds and restructures. Looking east, may well be the right thing to do, and the lessons from East Asia, as well as now SE Asia, may well provide important lessons.

At this critical moment, in advance of elections, political parties, media commentators, and academics alike need to engage with the realities on the ground, and avoid the posturing, the ideological grandstanding and the bitter, personal attacks and get to grips with the new realities. Harking on about the past, and failing to accept that there have been important successes of Zimbabwe’s land reform means that new thinking does not emerge. Hawkins and Cross need to engage with the facts of the present, not some idealised notion of the past.

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


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