A new start for Zimbabwe?

18 September 2008

IDS Professorial Fellow, Ian Scoones, challenges the myths about Zimbabwean agriculture and land reform

The long-awaited political agreement in Zimbabwe is to be welcomed. After years of political impasse and economic instability, there is a potential for a new start. But an informed debate on the future is needed and a focus on land and the agricultural sector must be central to these discussions. The new government will be offered advice from all quarters – consultants from around the world will arrive by the plane load, and the donor community and foreign think-tanks of all persuasions will forward their preferred plans and programmes.

But the new government must be careful. Too much of the past period has been coloured by ideological posturing and misinformation – from all sides. For a sound, sustainable policy approach for the future, a hard look at the evidence on the ground must be the starting point. This must involve engaging with field research aimed at understanding the unfolding dynamics of land, agriculture and livelihoods – and the perspective of farmers and land users themselves.

The ‘Livelihoods after Land Reform in Southern Africa’ programme has been doing just this. Led by the University of the Western Cape’s Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies, and involving researchers in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe work in Zimbabwe has focused on Masvingo province in the south east of the country. The detailed study has tracked the evolution of land reform in the province since 2000, assessing the consequences for people’s livelihoods and the wider economy. It has revealed some important insights that challenge the ‘conventional wisdoms’ dominating media and academic commentary alike. The research to date raises some fundamental challenges to five oft-repeated myths about recent Zimbabwean land reform and offers some important insights for the future direction of rural policy in Zimbabwe.

Read more about the five myths

Future strategies must work to enhance economic stability – boosting local production and spending power. At the moment the overall net benefits of restructuring following land reform are unclear, but, with the right support, wider economic growth can be realised. What will be essential is to ensure that such support does not undermine the diversified entrepreneurialism that has emerged in recent years. The complex new value chains are perhaps a bit haphazard, unregulated and chaotic at times but their benefits are more widely distributed and economic linkages more embedded in the local economy. In the longer term such new economic arrangements can enhance broad-based and resilient growth and livelihood generation in ways that the old agrarian structure could never do. 

Let us hope that the new government – and the donor community who will hopefully rush to support it – will take heed of such findings, and act to support positive change, rather than – as so often happens with hasty decisions and ideologically-driven positions – undermine the clear potentials and opportunities.

Much needs to be done: there is an urgent need for economic and political stability; there are substantial requirements for focused investment and support in agriculture; but, at the same time, there is also much to build on and positive dynamics to catalyse. Let us hope that a positive spiral will emerge which builds on the redistributive gains of the land reform and the real potentials of small-scale agriculture to be the motor of economic growth and regeneration.

Ian Scoones is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. He is an agricultural ecologist by original training and has worked in rural Zimbabwe since 1985. His PhD thesis is entitled Livestock populations and the household economy: a case study from southern Zimbabwe (University of London, 1990). He is the author of numerous articles, chapters and reports on rural Zimbabwe, including the 1996 book Hazards and Opportunities: Farming Livelihoods in Dryland Zimbabwe (Zed Press). He is a member of the Livelihoods after Land Reform project team. All views presented in this article are personal ones.

Images: Robert Mugabe by Mark Chilvers/ Panos and Morgan Tsvangirai by Robin Hammond/ Panos