Tuesday, 23 April 2013

23 April 2013: China and Brazil in African Agriculture - news roundup

Chinese Firms Criticised in Zimbabwean Tobacco Out-Grower Schemes
Chinese firms are said to be rapidly dominating the Zimbabwean tobacco markets and placing increasingly high demands and costs on locally engaged farmers in out-grower schemes. Chinese tobacco firm Tian Ze is one such company that has bemoaned poor quality in last year's crop and is trying to encourage farmers to invest more in their crops.
(The Standard, Zimbabwe)

EU Agricultural Investments Urged to Keep Up with China and Brazil
The EU Farm Commissioner, Darcian Ciolos, has urged European companies to invest more in African agriculture to keep pace with growing Chinese and Brazilian interests.

Centre for Chinese Studies (CCS) Report
The CCS, based at the University of Stellenbosch, has published a special report on the BRICS in Africa (pdf). Within it there are specific chapters on Brazil-Africa relations and China-Africa relations.

World Bank Takes Africa's Pulse
The World Bank has released a report on the growth of Sub-Saharan African economies since the financial crisis and their impact on poverty reduction (pdf). There is a strong focus on the role of agriculture in this light and mention of agricultural trade with China and Brazil.

Brazilian Conference on Development Banks
The Brazilian International Relations think tank CEBRI held a conference on 26 March on the role of development banks and their benefits to "developing" and "developed" economies. The conference is available for download from CEBRI's podcast on iTunes store. The event also marked the launch of their new report entitled 'Explaining the BNDES: what it is, what it does and how it works' by Seth Colby
Information (Português) / BNDES paper (English)

Sustainable African Agriculture
Camilla Toulmin writes in the Guardian about a recent report by the Montpellier Panel on African Agriculture, discussing how "sustainable farming" is often used as a means of disguising large scale "land grabs" whereas the concept remains an important opportunity for small holders equally. Such prescriptions make an interesting point of reference from which to view Chinese and Brazilian engagements.

The Morality of China in Africa
May 7: Launch event of a new book of that title edited by Prof. Stephen Chan and including essays by Chinese and African authors

New special issue: Global land governance

A special issue of the journal Development and Change, entitled Governing Global Land Deals: The Role of the State in the Rush for Land, is the latest of a series exploring global land, water and green grabs.

This has been part of the work of the Land Deal Politics Initiative, and supported by the land theme of the Future Agricultures Consortium. Many of the papers published were originally presented in two major conferences held at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex in 2011 and at Cornell University in 2012.

Download and view the issue
Governing Global Land Deals: The Role of the State in the Rush for Land (2013)
Special Issue, Development and Change, 44(2). Wendy Wolford, Saturnino M. Borras Jr., Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones and Ben White (editors)

Other special issues on land, green grabs and water grabs

Democracy in the Anthropocene?

Planetary boundaries / Illustration from Global Change magazine
STEPS Centre director Melissa Leach recently wrote in the Huffington Post: "When the cover of the Economist famously announced 'Welcome to the anthropocene' a couple of years ago, was it welcoming us to a new geological epoch, or a dangerous new world of undisputed scientific authority and anti-democratic politics?" Melissa's blog has provoked a series of fascinating responses and contributions to a vital debate about the planetary boundaries concept, the use of scientific expertise and authority within political processes, and the nature of democratic involvement in sustainability debates.

Melissa was reflecting on her experiences as part of a group of experts convened by the United Nations to discuss science and sustainable development goals. She was writing about a particular UN process, and did not claim that the concepts of planetary boundaries, the anthropocene or the scientists developing and working with these concepts, are undemocratic or authoritarian. Far from it.

However she did express concern that the anthropocene could neatly be aligned with top-down, rather than bottom-up solutions to our planet's most urgent challenges: "The anthropocene, with its associated concepts of planetary boundaries and 'hard' environmental threats and limits, encourage a focus on clear single goals and solutions," She wrote. "It is co-constructed with ideas of scientific authority and incontrovertible evidence; with the closing down of uncertainty or at least its reduction into clear, manageable risks and consensual messages."

The Huffington Post piece roused Roger Pielke Jnr, a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder in to penning a thoughtful intervention on his blog, entitled Planetary Boundaries as Power Grab. Roger wrote: "For the proponents of planetary boundaries as political authority, issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science."

The pieces kicked off a very interesting discussion - which can be followed via the comment sections of both Roger's blog - where Melissa added further clarification about her original piece - and that of the Resilience Alliance's blog, Resilience Science. The latter became involved through a response to Roger's post from Victor Galaz, Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in political science at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where Johan Rockström and colleagues formulated the planetary boundaries concept.

Victor countered that: "There is no such thing as one homogenous "political philosophy" for planetary boundaries. And there is no power grab." He listed a number of "vibrant and diverse ways of studying and exploring the governance implications of planetary boundaries" that help explain how planetary boundaries can be used in open and constructive ways. His piece makes persuasive reading.

Following these debates, two PhD researchers at the University of East Anglia - Martin Mahony and Helen Pallett - have penned some rich reflections about the anthropocene on their blog, The Topograph. First Martin, explored the "relevance of the concept 'Anthropocene' to our understandings of how knowledge and politics, and nature and culture, are related to each other". And then Helen went on to talk about her belief that "as an emergent mode of thinking and acting the anthropocene is a potentially productive concept which goes beyond old certainties, assumptions and forms of action."

All of these pieces make fascinating reading, and the opinions expressed might well make you interrogate your own feelings and thoughts about the anthropocene, scientfic authority and the most effective ways to tackle the challenges facing our people and planet. May this constructive debate continue.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Dodgy data and missing measures: why good numbers matter (part I)

Earlier this year, an excellent short book, "Poor Numbers: How we are misled by African development statistics, and what to do about it" by Morten Jerven from Simon Fraser University in Canada was published (see this African Arguments piece for a summary). It makes the case that African statistics are often worse than useless, and decisions, rankings and other assessments made based on such poor numbers are usually grossly misleading. Jerven comments (page xi):

“…the numbers are poor. This is not just a matter of technical accuracy. The arbitrariness of the quantification process produces observations with very large errors and levels of uncertainty. This numbers game has taken on a dangerously misleading air of accuracy, and the resulting numbers are used to make critical decisions that allocate scarce resources. International development actors are making judgments based on erroneous statistics. Governments are not able to make informed decisions because existing data are too weak or the data they need do not exist”.

He argues that this appalling state of affairs came about through a long neglect of statistical services in Africa, made worse by the withdrawal of state support during the structural adjustment period. He focuses in on the iconic statistic, the gross domestic product (GDP), and a few countries, including Nigeria, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania. GDP figures are made up of various elements, and in many countries in Africa, agricultural income is crucial. Yet, as Jerven shows for Malawi, there are all sorts of reasons not to believe the figures, as political incentives in particular result in distortions (in the case of Malawi massively upwards to 'prove' the 'success' of the politically driven fertiliser subsidy policy). Also, in much of Africa, the informal economy is massive, and very poorly understood.

There are ways of assessing informal economic activity, such as through assessing expenditures, but understandings remain often very limited. The result is that in countries where the informal economy is significant (most of Africa), there are large under-estimates in national income.

The consequences of all this are severe, the book argues. Planning and budget allocations are carried out on the basis of flimsy evidence, distortions arise as statistics are influenced by political interests, successes much hailed may be far from such, and in the endless pursuit of targets (driven for example by the Millennium Development Goal process), indicators may be meaningless, or the data simply made up or guessed. The highly popular country rankings on everything from GDP to good governance – including the latest offering coming from IDS (where I work), the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI) – thus create their own political economy. Informed by dodgy data and the even more dubious process of 'expert judgement', many rankings may be worthless. Dudley Seers (quoted by Jerven, p. 36), who went on to become the founding director of IDS, had this to say 60 years ago:

"In the hands of authorities, such international comparisons may yield correlations which throw light on the circumstances of economic progress, and they tell us something about relative inefficiencies and standards of living, but they are very widely abused. Do they not on the whole mislead more than they instruct, causing a net reduction in human knowledge?"

A key complaint Seers was the lack of attention to the 'subsistence economy'. This he referred to as the "well-known morass which those estimating national income of underdeveloped areas either skirt, rush across or die in" (again quoted by Jerven, p. 37).

Yet such measures and rankings inform opinion, resource disbursement and provide competitive league tables to which governments respond, often exacerbating the poor numbers problem, as yet more dodgy data is conjured up, combined and ranked in ways that make little sense.

Zimbabwe is not covered by the book, but the core argument still holds, as I will explore further next week. The Central Statistics Office, now ZIMSTAT, has been the main source of government data since the colonial era. Compared to many countries, it has impressive capacity and a very strong track record. One thing that could be said of the colonial and Rhodesian authorities is that they were very keen on data. From the Rhodesian Yearbooks to the regular national income and expenditure surveys, data was collected, collated and compiled rigorously and consistently.

Statistics are after all about measurement and control – they are the very essence of the state, as the term suggests. In his brilliant history of statistics, The Taming of Chance, Ian Hacking relates how states were developed alongside statistical services, including cadastral surveys, taxation systems and population counts. In Jim Scott's terms the ordered, controlling and regulated way of 'seeing like a state', is very much wrapped up in counting, surveying and so being able to control, through a form of Foucauldian governmentality at the core of modern states.

While there are clearly negative aspects to this form of state capacity, there are also positive attributes. A committed developmental state cannot allocate funds, direct energies and plan for the future without a good statistical base. Negotiations with donors, steering of investments and prioritisation of expenditures are impossible. Equally, without solid data, political biases, bureaucratic whims and donor influence can overtake planning and budgeting to the detriment of developmental objectives.

Jerven concludes on the state of African statistics: "…the data are based on educated guesses, competing observations, and debateable assumptions, leaving both trends and levels open to question and the final estimates malleable (p. 108)… He continues: "Decisions about what to measure, who to count, and by whose authority the final number is selected do matter" (p.121). Which is why he recommends the revitalisation of African statistical services and, perhaps just as importantly, the improvement of capacity to interrogate and interpret data, including from qualitative insights.

Next week, I will turn to the implications for Zimbabwe more specifically.

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

Monday, 15 April 2013

Agrarian change, rural poverty and land reform: South Africa’s experience

An important special issue of the Journal of Agrarian Change was released earlier in the year on Agrarian Change, Rural Poverty and Land Reform in South Africa since 1994. The papers are free to download, and are well worth a read.

It was put together during an extended seminar hosted by PLAAS, involving a group dubbed 'the rock stars' of agrarian studies – Henry Bernstein, James Ferguson, Bridget O'Laughlin, Pauline Peters and of course the host, Ben Cousins, among others. Quite a gathering, who spent time last year in near Stellenbosch, thinking about land, poverty and agriculture. The Special Issue is in some ways an update of the earlier issue discussing post-apartheid transition, published in 1996, and edited by Henry Bernstein.

The new introduction poses some basic questions, asking "by what means, in what ways, and how much can agrarian reform address the processes that underlie rural and urban poverty and the increasing inequality that marks contemporary South Africa?" In framing the debate, the editors refer to the classic labour reserve theorists who provided a structuralist analysis of the way capital creates dualism, and so inequality and poverty:

"They focused on the question of labour, and particularly on the pervasiveness, durability and eventual vulnerabilities of migrant labour…. They saw the constitution of the 'Native Reserves', both social and physical spaces, as central to the functioning of colonial capitalism. The account that they provided helped us to understand that the poverty and misery of black rural areas were not the residual result of an absence of development but, rather, manifested a particular pattern of capital accumulation on the back of land dispossession".

However there are clear limitations to this theorisation, as it is too reliant on macro constructs and economistic thinking, forgetting the local, particular social dynamics and the wider colonial politics which have shaped current settings. The Issue editors comment, "…it is necessary to grasp the diversity and differences of the rural areas of Southern Africa, and the complex social dynamics, including divisions of class, gender and generation among their inhabitants. Their histories, both past and future, are not written by capital alone".

They also point to the important work by Mahmoud Mamdani, who argues in Citizen and Subject that there has to be much better attention to the historical-political conditions of colonialism that gave rise to domination, and the 'bifurcated state'. Of course since the classic Marxist work of the 1970s, the migrant labour system has been radically reconfigured.  'Today there is "growing surplus labour', unemployment and casualization", with very different implications for livelihoods, and land. This means new theorisations of land and agrarian change are needed, suited to contemporary situations.

How this is done of course will frame what questions are asked, and what solutions are suggested.
The contributions to the Special Issue offer a diversity of perspectives. Andries du Toit, for example, argues strongly for a perspective centred on inequality, avoiding getting too hung up on ownership of land and resources. From this perspective redistribution may operate across a number of dimensions (up and down the value chain) and spaces (including both rural and urban), allowing new livelihood opportunities to emerge. A focus on labour offers another perspective. As Sender and Johnston argued provocatively in 2004, an emphasis on improving the conditions of labour on commercial farms may be a more effective redistributive and emancipatory option, compared to redistributing the land itself.

Others focus on the potentials centred on local level accumulation from own agricultural production. The paper by Ben Cousins, for example, shows the potentials and limits of such 'accumulation from below' in KwaZulu Natal. A wider livelihoods perspective looks at how agricultural possibilities from land reform must be combined with assessments of income from other sources, as Mike Aliber and Ben Cousins show from a study in rural Limpopo province.

Still others point to perspectives centred on social development, and how access to education, health and social care may infuence poverty levels in profound ways. And whether the focus is on inequality, labour, agricultural accumulation, livelihoods or distributive justice and social development, all are intersected by dimensions of differences affected by gender, age and ethnicity.

The Special Issue thus offers no clear-cut answers, nor any defined formula for the way forward – indeed there is no clear agreement on theoretical framing among the papers, and so a diversity of positions implied on the value (or otherwise) of redistributive land reform. This makes it a refreshingly pluralistic take on a complex issue, where different perspectives combine, challenge, contradict and complement in different ways. There is no one-size-fits-all version, as in the 1970s framing, but a diversity. This is helpful for productive debate, and this Special Issue is an important contribution, helpful for anyone seeking to understand agrarian change in Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe.

Where the authors do converge, though, is the urgent need to do something about deeply structured patterns of inequality, whose characteristics have barely budged since 1994. Henry Bernstein observes that "South African agriculture and agricultural policy since 1994 has done little, if anything, to 'transform' the circumstances of the dispossessed – rural and urban classes of labour – whose crises of social reproduction remain grounded in the inheritances of racialized inequality".

This is a shocking realisation, given the great hopes that were held up for a 'free' South Africa. As the centenary of the 1913 Natives’ Land Act is commemorated this year, it is a reminder that, as in Zimbabwe, the inheritance of a particularly divisive history is exceptionally difficult to shed.

While the Special Issue is focused on South Africa, Zimbabwe is frequently mentioned across the papers. The editors note the 'spectre' of Zimbabwe in public and policy discourse, as an impetus to address these stark poverty and inequality challenges. But perhaps Zimbabwe can also offer lessons on the potentials as well as challenges of redistributive land reform. The conditions and contexts are of course massively different, but some exchange of ideas and perspectives between South Africa and Zimbabwe may be productive, given the urgency of the challenge south of the Limpopo.

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

12 April 2013: China and Brazil in African Agriculture - news roundup

by Henry Tugendhat CBAA Research Officer

This is the first in a series of weekly posts from the China and Brazil in African Agriculture (CBAA) project. Every week, we will be posting selected news and comment from around the web on the impacts of Chinese and Brazilian co-operation on African agriculture.

To find out about more about the project, visit the CBAA project homepage.

Li Keqiang Promoting Agricultural Modernisation in China

China's new Premier, Li Keqiang, highlights the PRC's new drive for agricultural modernisation involving larg-scale farming initiatives in a trip to the Yangtze River area. This is in line with the policy recommendations published in China's No.1 Policy Document in January this year. (The No.1 Policy Document is the first policy document to be published each year and this is the 10th consecutive year for it to focus on rural issues)
Joint Annual Meeting of the African Union
The 6th Joint Annual Meeting of the African Union’s ministers of finance, planning and economic development called for a focus on industrialisation and discussed means to bring this about. Agriculture was discussed briefly as part of this agenda with the view that it should be modernised.
Brics and Africa: a winning partnership against hunger?
CBAA researcher Lidia Cabral writes about the experience of Brazilian agriculture and their potential value for African contexts, and examines the questions of transferability and the nature of those engagements so far.
What can DFID learn from Chinese and Brazilian aid programmes?
Henry Tugendhat, CBAA researcher, writes for the From Poverty to Power blog about DFID’s new plans of leveraging UK businesses towards development objectives, and what they could learn from China and Brazil’s endeavours in the context of agriculture.

Other news, blogs and more

The South China Morning Post highlights the limited amount of Chinese agricultural investments in Africa, despite Chinese state interests for greater involvements.

Another Chinese investor, Zhu Zhangjin, has been encouraging compatriots to invest abroad to ensure greater food safety. An article on farmlandgrab.org talks of his investments, particularly in Brazil, and the challenges Chinese investors face abroad including language and perceptions.

BRICS Policy Centre meeting on China in Africa
April 11: Dr He Wenping is to host a conference on ‘China in Africa: Past, Present and Future’ at the BRICS Policy Centre. The conference will be hosted in English.

Rural China under new leadership
April 11-13: The 11th European Conference on Agriculture and Rural Development in China will be taking place in Wuerzburg, Germany. The conference will also include a talk given by CBAA researcher Lu Jixia on the subject of “Pathways for Environmental Health in Transitional China: Moving Between Formality and Informality”

Friday, 12 April 2013

What multidisciplinary means: Nature doesn't care about our building blocks

Rats in a maze, by ithinkx on Flickr (cc-by-nc-nd)
The deeper you dig into most matters, the more complex things become. International development research is no different – and, given that it is people's wellbeing that is the chief concern here, the imperative to pay due regard to such complexity is great indeed.

Dr Gianni Lo Iacono is a mathematical modeller and a partner in the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium, a large, multidisciplinary research programme convened by the STEPS Centre. The Consortium is exploring the links between disease, ecosystems and wellbeing.

Gianni recently got to grips with just how ambitious this research programme is and how complex things can become when he undertook a field trip to Sierra Leone. Here, the Consortium is investigating the drivers behind Lassa fever – a rodent-borne viral infection common in West Africa, where there are up to 300,000 cases of the disease and 5,000 deaths as a result of it every year.

Writing on the 'Nature' blog Soapbox Science, Gianni explains the attraction of a multidisciplinary project such as the Drivers of Disease one.
'I am a strong advocate of the old-fashioned, reductionist approach. Accordingly, any complex scientific problem should be broken down into its basic building blocks. Of course nature doesn't care about our traditional compartmental division of science and therefore there is no reason to think that the building blocks must belong to one and only one discipline.'
He says that visiting Sierra Leone was 'an amazing experience' and that it 'illustrated clearly that forcing ourselves to allocate each building block of a complex ecosystem to one discipline alone seems only to set up a path for failure'.

The field trip saw Gianni returning to the UK with more questions than answers. You can find out why by reading Gianni's blog in its entirely at Nature Soapbox Science.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.

Celestial (policy) navigation

compass1by Jim Sumberg, STEPS Centre research fellow

The proposition that public policy should be 'evidence-based' is now widely accepted (although there is still considerable contestation around the meaning, nature, types, and qualities of evidence, the interpretation of evidence, the politics of evidence etc). The evidence in the phrase 'evidence-based policy' is often portrayed as evidence about 'what works, where and for whom': the 'what' might be a policy or technical intervention, and the 'works' is understood as the ability to deliver a particular outcome.

There is a second area of evidence that is less commonly referred to in debates about evidence-based policy. This is evidence about 'what is, what has been and what is likely to be', which provides a picture (or more likely multiple, partial and contested pictures) of key structures, institutions, alliances, power relations, drivers, trends, outcomes, dynamics and pathways within a particular sector or policy area. Here there is a critical role for historical evidence as it allows for some understanding of what might be thought of as the 'baseline of change'.

So, the argument is as follows:
  1. Evidence-based policy discourse that focuses on 'what works, where and for whom' presupposes the existence of evidence about 'what is, what has been and what is likely to be'.
  2. In some key policy domains – e.g. in relations to significant parts of the agricultural sector in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa (our STEPS work on the poultry sector in Ghana is a case in point) – the available evidence about 'what is, what has been and what is likely to be' is extremely weak (if not misleading or erroneous).
  3. Without evidence about 'what is, what has been and what is likely to be', it is pretty much impossible to move to a meaningful consideration of 'what works, where and for whom'.
And the question is: what is the alternative approach to policy where the lack of evidence on 'what is, what has been and what is likely to be' makes it impossible to move to a reasoned consideration of 'what works, where and for whom'?

Let's switch for a moment from policy making to navigation. For the mariner, navigation is essentially about: knowing where you are; avoiding danger and hazards; and arriving (eventually) where you want to go. Modern navigation – with GPS (that very precisely locates the ship), electronic chart plotters, tide tables, accurate weather forecasting, etc – has revolutionised the nature of marine transportation. If you know where you are and where you want to go, take all the relevant factors (tides, wind, weather, hazards etc) into consideration through the appropriate algorithm, and steer a true course, you will have a very high probability of (1) not going aground and (2) arriving where and when predicted.

In this way, modern navigation has some important commonalities with the ideal of evidence-based policy. Perhaps most importantly, it is the knowledge about what is, what has been and what is likely to be that both underpins and links precision navigation and evidence-based policy. It is of course true that neither modern navigation nor evidence-based policy making is immune to gales, freak events or changing political weather, which may well require a change or adaptation to course, speed and/or tactics.

beagle1But for centuries mariners navigated without the benefit of GPS, radar or accurate charts. Can we learn something from these early navigators that could inform approaches to policy making where the lack of evidence on 'what is, what has been and what is likely to be' makes it impossible to move to a systematic analysis of 'what works, where and for whom'?

Older approaches to navigation were much more approximate. Instead of steering a course to the nearest degree, a general direction of travel toward a desired destination was maintained using stars or other celestial bodies to provide a rough-and-ready steering guide. 'What is' (e.g. knowing where you are) was established by observation and simple calculations of angles, speeds and distances. Evidence about 'What has been' drew on sailors' knowledge and experience, while evidence about 'What will be' drew on their ability to predict upcoming weather conditions, interactions with tides and so on. All of this information was partial so the critical element was maintaining the general direction of travel in the face of uncertainty and constantly changing conditions, as opposed to predicting precisely the time or location of landfall.

The policy maker who is faced with a lack of evidence on 'what is, what has been and what is likely to be' is in a position that is more akin to the traditional than the modern marine navigator. Perhaps the most important thing for policy makers in this position is to establish and maintain a general direction of travel. This could be specified broadly, and could easily accommodate fuzzy boundaries. For example, notions like 'food security' or 'sustainable production' might provide a 'good enough' specification of the general direction of travel.
In addition, important hazards and courses to be avoided could also be identified, and (provisional) success defined as NOT taking a number of specific actions rather than arriving at a precise destination. At the level of policy theory, this means identifying a number of necessary conditions for success. Even without the modern technology, celestial navigators knew that there were numerous ways they could reach the desired location (being successful): but none of these paths entailed running aground, losing their crew or going back to the point of departure. Running into bad weather was not necessarily the end of the world: as long as the crew were safe and the ship was not lost or damaged beyond repair, there was always the possibility of getting back on course.

If we follow the celestial navigation metaphor, the job of the policy maker is to assess, using some trusted 'guiding stars', various policy options and interventions as to whether or not they are likely to help maintain movement in the general direction of travel (in addition to whether they are affordable, politically acceptable etc etc). It would also be helpful to identify a set of undesirable actions (such as running aground) that must NOT be taken, because NOT taking them is necessary for success.

This seems like a very different proposition than that commonly portrayed as evidence-based policy making. Critically, the focus has moved up a level to the choice of the general direction of travel and the guiding star. The falsely reassuring idea that it is all about objective, technical ('evidence-informed') choice amongst competing policy approaches and instruments is no longer at centre stage.

(Images: Compass Study from calsidyrose on Flickr; HMS Beagle in the Galapagos by John Chancellor from nunataak on Flickr)

This article was originally posted on the Future Agricultures blog.

When is research ‘really authoritative’? Challenges of evidence, authorship and positionality in research on Zimbabwe’s land reform

Reviews of our book keep piling in; this time prompted by the recent publication of Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land, a more popular summary of the main studies of Zimbabwe's land reform.
The latest is by Martin Plaut in African Arguments. He broadly agrees with our findings, but says he is still awaiting a 'really authoritative' account. His main complaint about both books, it seems, is that authors on both are not only researchers but also resettlement farmers, and beneficiaries of the land reform. This he says has resulted in biases in our accounts. Authorship, bias and evidence are themes I have written about before on this blog. But since they keep coming up, perhaps they are worth returning to.

In Martin Plaut's piece he argues "if the backgrounds and politics of the authors intrude into the study it lessens its objectivity". Yes, I agree. But we equally cannot ignore our backgrounds and politics, and that's why I make the case for reflexivity as essential for enhancing rigour. Just because some authors of our book, just as the new one, come from diverse backgrounds, with different experiences and contrasting political positions, this doesn't mean that the data we collect and the evidence we present is necessarily 'biased'. In fact, I would argue, quite the opposite.

In the case of our book, the core team has worked together for 25 years, and knows the study area intimately. That some of the team were beneficiaries of the land reform programme allowed us particular insights. But others of course were not farmers and not from the area, and, crucially, all of us have a passion for detailed fieldwork, systematic data collection and careful analysis. This is why we presented so much detail in the book (against the objections of our editors!), so it could be scrutinized, evaluated and critiqued.

In his commentary, Martin highlights BZ Mavendzenge in particular, the field team leader, whose farm he visited (which was incidentally purposely not in our study area) in 2011 as part of a BBC team. When it came out, I sent the review to BZ by email – direct to the farm, where if you go to a small hill above the house, behind the new chicken runs, and beyond the well you can get good service and download emails these days. He wrote straight back. He asks, "Does authoritative mean an aerial view from outsiders? Surely, as Chambers says, farmer first is the way forward…". He goes on, appreciating the rest of the piece, "Martin I think agrees there was much to see to be proud of about accumulation from below".

So how should BZ, as an author, be represented? As farmer, researcher, land reform beneficiary, former government civil servant, born and bred in Masvingo province, or what? He is of course all of these; and each identity helps shape his insights and perspectives. In particular as a researcher, trained at agricultural college and then working at Matopos research station, before taking over the lead of the Department of Research and Specialist Services' Farming Systems Research Unit in Masvingo, BZ has unparalleled insights into the dynamics of farming systems in the area. This is why I have so enjoyed – and benefitted from – working with him all these years.

What about Martin Plaut? How should we read his review? As someone who was born and bred in apartheid South Africa, educated at universities with largely white students, or as someone who was centrally involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and the 1976 Soweto uprising, or as formerly Head of the Africa section of the BBC World Service, and a brilliant reporter on the Horn and Southern Africa, or, now retired, and a Fellow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies? Again, he is all of these; and these experiences and positions allow him to carry out really authoritative, top-notch investigative journalism and writing (just check out his recent book on the early history of the ANC to get a flavour).

All authorship is so conditioned, but this should not imply bias. And we should avoid jumping to conclusions just because of the author's status or experience. Any evaluation must come through more rigorous assessment of data and analysis. This is the reason I have objected before to statements from the Commercial Farmers' Union, for example (see here and here) – not because they are from the CFU, but because they are wrong! I have previously commented both on Martin's otherwise excellent BBC radio pieces he did in 2011 on Zimbabwe, and also when certain information was presented on the costs of land reform, and replicated in articles on the BBC and elsewhere as fact.
BBC balance is an article of faith but sometimes does not serve the search for truth well. A journalistic piece that presents all sides as equivalent sometimes ends up being unbalanced. If equal airtime is offered to detailed, rigorous research undertaken over years and commentaries based on figures that seem to have been plucked from the air to suit the argument, this is not exactly balance in my view.

This is not to argue that both our book and Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land don't have silences, gaps and contestable arguments. Of course. That's why we publish, encourage debate and urge others to do more research. What we don't expect is our work – or indeed anyone else's – to be dismissed on the basis of who they are, rather than what they say.

As I keep pointing out in this blog, it's not as if we don't have plenty of empirical evidence to go on these days. This accumulation of insights is getting seriously 'authoritative' and pointing, broadly but with important nuances, in the same direction. It's irritating sometimes that our book is the only one that gets mentioned (and now of course the new one), just because we hit the limelight (not least I suspect because the lead authors of both books are based in the UK, and are white and professors).
But actually there are piles of other research, research and written by Zimbabweans, not least the impressive district studies led by Sam Moyo and team at the African Institute of Agrarian Studies, and the new book by Prosper Matondi, based on the work by the Ruzivo trust team. The map below shows all the studies I know about (likely a partial sample), and it's an impressive array, both geographically and in terms of breadth of authorship.

Across these studies, we can triangulate, compare, synthesise and generate, yes, really authoritative insights. So, why the reluctance to accept the findings? Why the questioning of authors' credibility? Why the lack of counter-data coming forward? I think some of the answers do indeed lie in the positionality and politics of the commentators. It is difficult accepting a new situation, and rejecting positions long held. It is unsettling, discomfiting and challenging. But that is what good research – and indeed good journalism – sometimes has to do if we are to seek ways forward.

Just as Thomas Khun argued now over 50 years ago, settled paradigms are difficult to shift for all sorts of political, social and institutional reasons, but when they do, then 'normal science' can proceed, and the new paradigm can be unpacked, contested, unravelled, adapted and elaborated. For most serious scholars in Zimbabwe, it is this normal science that is unfolding now, as we do follow up surveys, new rounds of case studies, and examine our older data in the light of new findings.
I will be sharing some of these new field findings in the coming weeks and months on this blog. Just as all good 'normal science', the new data both confirms, but also nuances and sometimes contrasts with, the early findings. I hope that Martin and others find our new contributions 'authoritative' enough!
national research studies map

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

BRICS in Africa: new imperialism or a new development paradigm?

Last week, Durban hosted the 5th BRICS summit, with the heads of state from Brazil, Russia, India and China being hosted by President Zuma of South Africa. After a stopover in Russia, the new Chinese president’s first overseas trip was to Africa – first Tanzania and then on to South Africa. At the meeting, the BRICS leaders committed to creating BRICS bank with at least a $50 billion start-up fund, with a focus on infrastructure development.

This has been hailed as a new mechanism to support development, particularly in Africa, to rival the World Bank. The new BRICS facility would in turn usher in a new era of South-South cooperation, banishing the former colonial powers to the side-lines. But is this really going to be the case? China and Brazil certainly have significant and growing economic might. But South Africa is a mere ‘briquette’, according to some commentators.

So what is South Africa’s role in this new power bloc, given that its economy is dwarfed by the others?  Is it just a convenient addition to add in Africa? Or is South Africa being used as the ‘gateway’ to new investment from the new global economic powers? Is this new configuration creating, as Patrick Bond claims, a new sub-imperialism?  And what are the broader implications for Africa’s development, as the global geopolitical and economic contours shift? With Zimbabwe just north of the Limpopo, and in urgent need of investment, these developments have potentially important ramificaitons.  Bond rejects the potentials of a new development paradigm, and comments, “BRICS offer some of the most extreme sites of new sub-imperialism in the world today. They lubricate world neoliberalism, hasten world eco-destruction and serve as coordinators of hinterland looting. The BRICS hegemonic project should be resisted”.

Working with collaborators in China, Brazil and across Africa – including Langton Mukwereza in Zimbabwe  (see also earlier blogs here and here) – the  Future Agricultures Consortium has been starting some work to look at how China and Brazil in particular are engaging in African agriculture.

While we don’t buy the misty-eyed talk of South-South sharing and solidarity, we equally do not dismiss the new players completely. Clearly commerical business interests are at the heart of such engagements, and Chinese and Brazilian interests in agricultural machinery, agro-processing, ethanol production and so on are very evident in the new deals being struck with African governments. But such new development encounters are creating a new dynamic at the same time - that may offer some room for manoevre for African states, in negotiating new arrangements from both traditional donors and investors, and new ones.

In a Huffington Post blog from last week, I comment on some of the issues, and provide links to the new work, just released at the Political Economy of Agricultural Policy conference in Pretoria two weeks back.

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