Sunday, February 18, 2007

Life On The Edge - Part Two

In the comments section of the previous post someone called Pete (thanks Pete) has made some good points that I think deserve response, I would insert this as a comment but I have the feeling that this post may run a bit long for that. So here are Pete's points on my previous post, my comments will follow.

Hi Mark,

Depressing indeed, especially because its a totally manmade situation.

But why is the land situation (as it was) "clearly ridiculous"? I don't doubt that white people originally got the land in, ahem, a less than sporting manner, but we have to deal with the world as we find it now. Is a land distribution that adequately fed and employed Zimbabweans really ridiculous - especially given the effects of changing it so drastically?

Further, how can land reform be "handled properly"? By necessity it requires compulsion which will lead to owners not investing in land, improvements, equipment etc because they fear it will be confiscated. Are there examples of land reform not leading to neglect, other problems etc (genuine question - not rhetorical!)?

Generally, we should be wary of seemingly "good/fair" ideas e.g. land reform that are fine in theory but have the massive caveat of "if we can actually get it to work". I'd rather be landless but have a job and cheap food than have my very own 60millionth of the UK and be starving!

I am being a bit of a devil's advocate - probably in agriculturally dominated countries more equitable land distribution could be more important, but its only a means to an end, not an end in itself.

My problem with the land situation in Zimbabwe, and in fact much of sub-Saharan Africa is simply one of practicality. I agree that there is no moral reason to punish farmers who most likely themselves have done nothing wrong, at least in the sense that they themselves did not steal the land, the land was most likely appropriated by their great great grandfathers. My point is simply an observation of human nature, when there are some people who are so clearly rich and privileged making up a tiny fraction of the population, and when they are so clearly "different" from those that they appear to disadvantage it is clearly going to lead to major tensions within any society. This is not to say that these tensions are fair or warranted, simply that this is just how human nature works and whilst we should aim for the best in human nature we should also acknowledge and plan for the worst. The way that the situation was in Zimbabwe simply made the current outcome almost inevitable, some unscrupulous politician was always going to be willing to exploit the situation for their own political gain, as Mugabe has done to shore up his rural support in the face of a more educated urban population rejecting his other policies.

The question of how to reform the situation more equitably is of course very difficult, there was however until 1997 a fairly good process set up to do this. Until 1997 the UK government provided money to pay for land reform in Zimbabwe, under a "willing seller, willing buyer" scheme, which of course is really the only "fair" method. This approach while obviously much slower naturally leads to a redistribution of land as farming families either die out or leave the industry. It also has the benefit of allowing time for people on a waiting list for land to be trained on all the intricacies of modern farming and because the situation is also of mutual benefit to both parties it is much easier to allow for smooth transitions between owners. This of course means that as long as the farms themselves are not broken up into small uneconomic blocks then the level of production should remain the same.

This scheme was shut in 1997 by the incoming Labour government who rightly thought that they had no obligation to pay for a scheme that was caused by the actions of their ancestors. This decision was however possibly one of the least far-sighted decisions they have made, considering the small amount of money being expended (£44 million) and the fact that the money would probably still be being paid as development aid anyway it would seem with hindsight to have been a much better idea to keep the scheme running. Of course they had other reasons for making the decision, chiefly the suspicion (later borne out) that most of the land was going to Mugabe's cronies. It is interesting to wonder what would have happened if the scheme had kept running, whether or not the land reform would have preceded in a less chaotic manner. I tend to think not, I think Mugabe was always going to abuse the situation, he needed the land issue to hold onto the less educated rural population, to counter the rise of an organised urban opposition.

The tragedy as you say is that the situation is totally man-made, you would think that Robert Mugabe who by my count holds at least 3 degrees in Economics should have realised what would happen. I guess the imperative to stay in power simply became more important than the needs of his people.