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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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