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Uncertainty and the Zimbabwean economy

Over the last month there have been a number of reviews of progress – or the lack of it – since the ‘coup’ of November 2017 (see, for example, a recent BSR here). President Mnangagwa arrived in post on the back of much good will and hope for change. But hopes have been dramatically dashed since. This is not only due to the failure to address political reforms as required under the Constitution, but also a failure to confront underlying economic challenges, the inheritance of the Mugabe era. The flood of external investment failed to materialise, and the process of dealing with debt arrears and the negotiations with the IMF has been convoluted and protracted.

The situation today in the formal economy is dire. The recent budget statement was a farce, with made-up numbers conjuring up a fictional story. No-one believes the story being spun. Trust is the basis of any economy. Once lost, it is difficult to retrieve, and wild swings in exchange rates between different parallel rates, combined with accelerating inflation, means that things have become uncontrollably uncertain. Such uncertainties can provide opportunities for a few – those able to ‘rinse’ money, capitalise on fake prices and hedge against dramatic changes. These capitalist cowboys profit from chaos, and there are those in the political-military elite who are doing so today through a range of schemes.

Living through uncertain times

This leaves everyone else living in precarity through deeply uncertain times. For those who can insulate themselves from the mainstream economy, survival is possible. So, those with a secure source of remittance income, for example, can buy solar panels, generators and transformers to avoid the endless power cuts from ZESA. They can dig deep boreholes at their homes to assure clean, reliable water. And they can employ people to queue for fuel or food or any other commodity in short supply; or jump such queues using bribes, foreign currency or premium payments. There are others without such resources who must live in the informal economy, making do. This is hard, creating anxiety, stress and fear. Those who must dodge the law to sell illegally, for example, must confront violence or pay possibly the highest ‘taxes’ of any citizen to pay off the enforcers.

And then there are farmers. In such a chaotic economy, they may have the greatest resilience of all, as they can supply for themselves, and trade locally in an increasingly barter-based rural economy. The formal channels of marketing – and so some agricultural commodities – are frequently a waste of time, but alternatives emerge in the survival economy, which, against all odds, is supplying food across urban and rural areas.

In 2019, Zimbabweans have joined the citizens of places like the Democratic Republic of Congo in the darkest days of the Mobutu regime when the economy collapsed. Zimbabweans have learned the skills over two decades now, and the memories of the dramatic economic collapse of 2008 are etched on many people’s minds. In the DRC this capacity to get by, to ride the storm to make-do through resourcefulness and initiative, is termed ‘débrouillardise’. It doesn’t translate well into English, as it’s not a passive sense of hopelessness or coping or muddling-through free of active agency. It is a set of culturally-rooted skills that are actively applied in the everyday; part of life in an uncertain, turbulent world.

A new narrative that takes uncertainty seriously

The STEPS Centre at Sussex is just ending its year focused on the theme of uncertainty (check out the multiple resources, including podcasts, videos and blogs here). Reflecting on the Zimbabwe situation, our engagement with the politics of uncertainty across a range of domains has been hugely revealing. Too often, we assume we are dealing with controllable, manageable risks not deeper uncertainties, where we don’t know what the outcomes are. Predictions, forecasts and technical plans are what follows from a risk-control approach. Yet, if things are uncertain, ambiguous or even subject to ignorance (where we don’t know what we don’t know), then a risk approach – as seen in the imagined figures and forecasts in Zimbabwe’s recent budget statement – makes no sense, giving a false sense of being in control.

Professor Mthuli Ncube, Zimbabwe’s finance minister, with his background in mathematical finance, is steeped in this quantitative risk paradigm and the world of precise models and confident predictions. This may work in Oxford or Geneva but not in Zimbabwe’s economy where radical uncertainties play out. As the economy fragments, it’s the parallel, informal economy, dominated by uncertainties, ambiguities and ignorance, where the action is. Here, the standard measures of economic management being attempted by Ncube and being suggested by the IMF have no effect.

Some imagine a reform package that will bring things back to ‘normal’, provide a sense of order and control, based on principles advocated for liberal market economies where the informal sector is not significant. A recent report from Chatham House was of this type. It’s an odd read as it doesn’t connect with realities on the ground, and conjures up an imaginary, wished-for economy.

Instead of senseless dreaming and fictitious prediction based on fantasies of control, a new narrative for the economy is required, one that takes the uncertainties of the real, everyday economy seriously. Only then will the necessary trust be built in the basic functioning of the economy – formal and informal – so that some much-needed stability can emerge.

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

 

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Responding to uncertainty: who are the experts?

Uncertainties are everywhere, part of life. But how to respond? Who are the experts? These are questions that we are debating this week at an ESRC STEPS Centre symposium. But they are also questions very pertinent to daily life in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere in the world.

Everyday uncertainties

For example, last week in Zimbabwe, a new currency arrangement was announced overnight. The multi-currency regime disappeared and all monetary transactions within the country had to take place in the Zimbabwe dollar. No-one expected this to happen so suddenly.

This year too farmers have confronted uncertainties in their farming practices, with a widespread drought. An El Nino event was predicted, but what impact this would have, where on cropping and livestock production was unknown. Farmers and herders have had to adapt and innovate.

Many of those who received plots as part of the land reform after 2000 are still awaiting confirmation of the status of their holdings. Offer letters have been issued by multiple authorities and sometimes to different people. Many with medium-scale A2 farms were promised leases, but their issuing has been painfully slow. Securing finance has therefore become very uncertain.

Agricultural markets have always been uncertain, as prices vary with both local and global supply and demand. But selling tobacco, for example, has become more tricky today. Contracting arrangements are fragile, and auction sales are subject to all sorts of mediation making prices unclear. Even getting your crop to the sales floors can be subject to uncertainties, as police extract bribes at roadblocks.

In the past two decades, the economy as a whole has been informalised. Secure, stable jobs are rare. Instead, many must make a living in a highly precarious setting. The kukiya-kiya economy – improvising and making do – is the norm. This provides opportunities, but also challenges. Traders in an urban setting selling vegetables can have their businesses closed down at a stroke, as some ‘planning’ law is invoked by the local state. This has devastating consequences for traders, and their farmer suppliers.

Improvised responses, remembered pasts

These are just some examples; there are many more. Zimbabweans have become experts at responding to uncertainty. The old certainties of the past, based on stable, agreed plans, rules and regulations have gone. Informality means that transactions across numerous players have expanded.

And, added to this, people must respond to the wider global challenges of climate change, disease outbreak and volatility in financial markets, for example. Layered uncertainties intersect in an increasingly complex setting. Improvisation, experimentation, adaptation, negotiation are the watchwords in the performance of responding to intersecting uncertainties.

This can generate anxiety and stress. Confronting these challenges is not easy when you are having to make a living. Life depends on navigating a whole array of uncertainties. Coping takes many forms. When formal systems don’t exist or are not trusted, gossip, rumour and informal networks become important. Who knows what the parallel market rate is? Where is the best place to market a product? What time of day or night is it safe to travel on the road and avoid costly extortion? All these questions are regularly asked by Zimbabwe farmers (and others), with responses exchanged via Whatsapp. When the stresses of responding to uncertainty increase, humour is a good release. Jokes, stories, satire and songs are all very Zimbabwean outlets.

Some dream of the past, conjuring up a vision of when things were all apparently OK. Some even refer back to the colonial past when order and stability were features. Back then, so the narratives go, you knew where you stood; the system worked; a contract meant a firm agreement; the local currency was strong. Of course, nostalgic memories of the past are part of how the challenges of today are coped with too.

Yet, these constructed pasts of course don’t reflect the reality. Stability and order were created in favour of a certain elite and arbitrary intervention – removal of land, arrest for dissent, forcing of conservation measures on agricultural land and so on – were part of this regime of control. The past is not the answer to the future, even when the present is especially challenging.

Uncertainty: a sign of the times

It’s not only Zimbabweans who must confront the challenges of the new contexts of turbulence, complexity and uncertainty. This is a global phenomenon as the old systems fail to contain and control. Whether it’s climate chaos, the collapse of financial systems, mass migrations, epidemic disease outbreaks or the unravelling of political settlements, uncertainties are everywhere. And the old systems of control and order – what James Scott called ‘seeing like a state’ – no longer function. Our institutions are not geared up to respond to complexity and uncertainty of the sort seen today. They are failing on all fronts, and new alternatives are needed.

This is the topic of the symposium this week organised by the ESRC STEPS Centre at Sussex, which I co-direct. With participants examining everything from crime to volcanoes, we are aiming to unpack the politics of uncertainty, and explore the implications. I don’t think we will nail it in two days, but the event has attracted much interest from very diverse fields. We have participants focusing on finance and insurance, as well as disaster risk management and disease preparedness. Others have been researching new technologies – from driverless cars to CRISPR genetic tech – while others are concerned with global migration and expanding cities.

A central feature of these discussions is the distinction between uncertainty (where we don’t know the likelihoods of outcomes) and risk (where likelihoods are known, or can reliably be estimated). This is important, because how you respond must differ. With risk, clear control-based management is possible. Models, designs and plans all provide support for a rational, directed response. With uncertainty, you cannot predict, and different responses must follow. As Andy Stirling – the other co-director of the Centre – points out in this short video, there are other dimensions of incertitude too; and taking these seriously is essential.

In advance of the symposium – and as part of the background work for our PASTRES project on pastoralism and uncertainty – I produced a (rather long and quite dense) working paper called ‘What is Uncertainty and Why does it Matter?’. You can read it here. It is an attempt to grapple with the vast literature on risk and uncertainty. You can judge for yourself whether I was successful; it wasn’t an easy task!

Taking uncertainty seriously, I argue, is essential for addressing complexity, turbulence and contexts where knowledge about what the future holds are unclear. But this also requires a radical rethinking of how we go about everything from technological assessment to disaster preparedness to infrastructure design to the management of financial and market networks. In other words, it means a fundamental rethinking of what we once thought of as ‘development’.

This is a rather big, perhaps overambitious, argument, but I think it’s important. I was lucky enough to be invited to Copenhagen University recently to receive this year’s Ester Boserup prize for development research. I was very pleased to accept, especially as I am a big fan of Ester Boserup’s work, as it was always thoroughly empirically-based, challenging of conventional wisdoms and radically interdisciplinary, and often not accepted by the mainstream. My talk (35 min talk in video also below) tried to lay out these arguments, of why embracing uncertainty means a radical rethinking of development.

Who are the real experts?

The uncertainty working paper and the Copenhagen talk lay out the bigger arguments, but we must recognise that there are those, by both necessity and choice, who are already living with and off uncertainty, from whom we can learn.

This includes the pastoralists we are researching with in Amdo Tibet in China, southern Ethiopia, western India, northern Kenya, Sardinia and southern Tunisia as part of the PASTRES project, who have for millennia have made a living in highly variable environments.

Zimbabweans too are experts in uncertainty – perhaps especially so, given the turbulence of the political and economic setting over the past two decades. Zimbabweans have been learning the skills and aptitudes, and managing the stress and anxiety, that an uncertain world requires.

Nostalgic dreaming of an imagined past is not the answer, but inventing new practices and institutions that make the informal, networked, volatile, uncertain world possible – less a source of stress and anxiety, but supported and facilitated – is a crucial challenge for us all.

The experts who can radically transform both thinking and practice in development must therefore include Zimbabwe’s farmers and traders, along with pastoralists, front-line health officials dealing with disease outbreaks, brokers in complex, volatile, financial markets, and reliability professionals in critical infrastructures – and the many, many others. All of whom, in different, dispersed ways, are inventing a future (in ways as yet often unrecognised) that matches the huge challenge of uncertainty.

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

 

 

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Models for integrated resource assessment: biases and uncertainties

What are the most appropriate ways of understanding changes in natural resource change in rural areas, particularly in the context of climate change? How can we make use of data that is patchy and uncertain? How can models help decision-making about future management?

These questions are at the heart of three recently published journal articles on Zimbabwe. The three papers focus respectively on climate impacts on livestock feed (in Nkayi), land use intensity patterns (in Wedza) and the prevalence of grass fires (in Mazowe). What connects them is the use of remotely-sensed data on land use with an integrated modelling approach, aimed at policy prescriptions for resource management.

This style of research on natural resource use has become more and more common in recent years, as increasingly detailed data derived from satellite systems has become freely available. Integrated assessment models, modelling everything from climate impacts to crop production to land-use to water scarcity, can be linked to geo-referenced spatial data and parameterised with field-based data collection.

As a style of inquiry, integrated modelling approaches have a number of advantages. Diverse data sources can be combined, and predictions made around key policy issues. But there are also problems – and, in different ways, these three papers illuminate some of them.

Five problems with integrated resource assessment modelling

First, models are always framed by assumptions around problems and solutions. Each of these studies adopts a particular stance, resulting in recommendations for interventions to address the highlighted problem. So, climate change results in feed gaps for livestock, which can be solved by ‘climate smart’ adaptation measures in Nkayi. High land use intensity – excessive extraction of primary production – means that ‘hot spots’ of land degradation ‘externalities’ can be identified for intervention measures in Wedza. Increasing fire frequencies are assumed to be universally a bad thing, not a necessary consequence land clearance or a reflection of natural cycles in savannah dynamics, as fuel load builds up. Instead, recommendations, including the deployment of fire teams, creating fire-breaks and developing monitoring systems, are put forward for Mazowe.

Second, the uncertainties embedded in complex models are legion, meaning that any predictions have to be heavily qualified. These papers all acknowledge important uncertainties. In the assessment of land use intensity against a baseline of net primary production in Wedza, these arise, for example, from problems of estimating primary production in the baseline case, especially below-ground. Linking biomass harvesting to specific areas when livestock move is also recognised as a source of uncertainty. In the analysis of climate impacts on fodder management options in Nkayi, the uncertainties surrounding climate predictions across scenarios is acknowledged, and the model in turn is developed with parameters that are constrained within a ‘reasonable range of uncertainty’. Yet, by the end of the papers, important uncertainties are seemingly put aside in the desire to reach a definitive conclusion for the way forward. The apparent need for prediction, directions for ‘decision-making’ and control-oriented intervention are all-consuming.

Third, the style of argument too often leads to a closing down of discussion of more diverse options. All three papers are structured in the standard way of scientific papers, with propositions tested according to a set of methods, leading to results and conclusions. In the methods section, the qualifications, imperfections and uncertainties are duly noted. But, by the time the results are presented, around a particular quantitative model, such difficult issues are quietly put to the background. By the time of the conclusions, they have all but disappeared, and much stronger causal, predictive statements offer a definitive way forward, frequently hinted at by the original framing. For example, a model of land use intensity Wedza, focused on the extraction of net primary productivity, inevitably side-steps questions of how landscapes are understood, and how future resource use is seen by different groups of people. The social and political dynamics of change are not part of the storyline, despite the attempt to link resource use with different wealth groups.

Fourth, models are only models – simplified ways of thinking about the world – and they certainly can be helpful in thinking through options. But sometimes the assumptions just don’t make sense. Models to have any purchase need some ground-truthing, and some stress-testing with reality. The paper on grass fires shows clearly that there are no statistically significant differences across tenure types in fire frequency and extent. In other words, land reform farmers cannot be blamed, but without field based data, the paper is unable to explain the patterns, and instead uses a model that extrapolates future patterns from the past. In respect of fire, this is rather unlikely – fires due to land clearing will decline as farms and fields are established, while hunting will decline as game animal populations are eliminated. As a result, the regression-based models become detached from likely future realities. Instead, the regressions play a political role: by extrapolating increases in fires, they justify a set of externally-defined interventions.

Finally, the rush to a definitive recommendation for policy too often results in missing out on complex system dynamics, histories and contexts. The paper in this trio on livestock fodder systems, for example, assumes that the ‘feed gap’ will be filled by improved fodder quantity and quality, including the growing of fodder crops and the application of fertiliser to crops to improve stover. And this in dryland Nkayi? Surely not. The paper acknowledges that past attempts at improved fodder management have consistently failed, but does not probe why in the rush to provide an intervention-friendly recommendation aligned with a ‘climate-smart’ intervention narrative.

Styles of science: how to broaden out inquiry and open up debate

All three of these papers make important arguments and present significant data. They all have been peer-reviewed in respectable journals (Agricultural Systems, Ecological Economics and Geocarto International). The data is (mostly) of high quality, the models are consistent (if problematic) and the arguments are clearly made (although open to challenge). But reading these (and these are only exemplars of many, many others, perhaps rather unfairly singled out), the five wider concerns raised above kept coming back.

It makes me uneasy when a style of science closes down debate. Uncertainties are not embraced and alternative interpretations are not given space. An assumption that the end-point must be a science-based ‘smart’ intervention means other possibilities – more social, political for example – are not countenanced. This is less a critique of the particular methods and models, but more the style of policy-oriented science, centred on integrated assessment modelling, now central to a huge industry of ‘global change’ research.

What might an alternative approach look like? Modelling that takes uncertainty seriously would not close down to definitive solutions, but would aim to open debates up. Models that are interrogated with deep, field-based data, thus triangulating between modelling approaches, result in greater robustness and wider interpretation. When reading the papers, I had to ask: are there alternatives to new fodder regimes and crop fertilisation to address the consequences of climate change on livestock production in Nkayi? Of course there are! Does fire management have to be focused always on fire prevention; are fires always bad? Of course not! But such alternatives were not debated.

Suggesting diverse, alternative options for the future – different interpretations and solutions from an open approach to data, evidence and integrated assessment modelling – allows for an engaged, inevitably political debate, about what makes sense for whom. This would make for papers that are less neat, but perhaps ultimately more useful.

This is the fourth of a short series of blogs profiling recent papers on Zimbabwe.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland. Photo credit: Ian Scoones

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