Bill Gates discovers redistributive land reform

via Bill Gates discovers redistributive land reform | zimbabweland 12 January 2015

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 Regionin 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


  • comment-avatar
    Mpisi 7 years ago

    I don’t think Bill Gates is a farmer. I do think Africa and Asia have a very different work ethic. I do agree that giving title uplifts people. To support agro-industry a commercial agricultural base is necessary especially in heavy soils requiring mechanised tilling. Perhaps Mr Gates would support the satellite survey of communal lands precursory to granting title? Would be a real legacy.

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      Farai 7 years ago

      Gates might have a point but he’s completely ignoring the obvious benefits of economies of scale through commercial farming. In reality who cares if a farmer in Zim is black or white they just have to produce on a large scale for the macro-economic environment to benefit.

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        simon 7 years ago

        in reality we care that’s its blacks being given land and the key is not large scales but small scale commercial were yields are maximised per ha using simple irrigation and correct fertilisation ie each maize ha should prouduce more than 10 tonnes as compared to the current just over one ton

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    godfrey c 7 years ago

    After all no one has ever disputed the necessity of land redistribution, its the manner in which it was carried out in Zimbabwe which is the problem. The problems are far from over as we will start seeing land grabbing from the land grabbers and then land grabbing from land grabbers of land from land grabbers and so on and so on. I am sure this is not what Bill Gates is advocating for.

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    William Doctor 7 years ago

    I posted this on Scoones’ blog but he normally deletes my comments:

    “A couple of issues. In Zimbabwe, step 1 (create conditions …) involved serious human rights abuse and documented electoral fraud. I very much doubt Gates would condone that. And these issues need to be addressed, which is why sanctions were right. Sanctions are a form of protest against human rights violations. I very much doubt Zimbabwe will get to step 2 until farmers and farm workers are compensated, and free-and-fair elections held. But that will mean a possible return of ‘white capital’ which you’d argue against, even though Gates is the ultimate capitalist (but you quote him where it suits your arguments).

    Another issue – what works in Asia may not work in Africa. I wonder why there are very few African success stories? Botswana is one success story – but this has been through diamond sales. Subsistence farming in Botswana accounts for only 2.8% of GDP. Botswana’s constitution also ‘prohibits the nationalisation of private property and provides for an independent judiciary…’.

    If Zimbabwe had followed land reform within the confines of the law, compensated farmers (as South Africa continues to do), and allowed free-and-fair elections, then the country would be more successful than it is today, and you wouldn’t need to selectively cite Gates to support your arguments.”

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    masvukupete 7 years ago

    Hapana zvitsva apa. As long as the government allocates more money to the “Prez office” than to productive sectors there shall always be a stagnation. As long as political parties (esp. Zanu) does not empower the farmer to own the land we shall always have this problem. As long as the “producer” price is artificially pegged to benefit “importing farmers” we shall. As long as patronage and tribal balance rather than delivery is the modus of Presedential appointments we shall never see any success. in conclusion therefore the biggest hindrance to success in our lifetime is one Robert Mugabe.

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    Chisipite 7 years ago

    This is all so wrong on so many levels. Firstly, you cannot just give land to someone and they will become a productive farmer, subsistence or commercial. Farming is a vocation, it’s very hard work and it takes a certain kind of person. Anything less is a waste of the land. Secondly, prior to the land redistribution the Zim farmers paid the government in the form of taxes, now, according to the new farmers, there is no money from the government. So a government with no money, gave land it didn’t own away and is now expected to pay for the new farmers to do something with it. Hell at that rate, I could be farmer. Thirdly, no redistribution of wealth, ever, has been successful. You cannot take from the few “haves” and give to many “have not’s”. There just isn’t enough to go around, all you did was increase the pool of “have not’s”. Oh and finally anyone with an ounce of brain knows that the Zim land redistribution had nothing with giving land to the land less! How many farms, has grace ( I won’t even use a capital!) absorbed. I wonder how many farms the top twenty government officials took between them( I won’t even say own, that implies title and title resides with the person, not the property so the title remains with the rightful owner and not the current resident) As for Gates and Scoons, I want to take what they have and give it to a bunch of thieves, I want to threaten, cajole, intimidate, belittle and any other horrid thing I can think of. Then I challenge them to utter the same garbage they do now. They have no right or justification for commenting on my situation until they have lived it, and that, they never will, it’s illegal in the USA and UK!