Neither new nor informative: response to Richardson on property rights

On 7th March 2013, Craig Richardson – Associate Professor of Economics at Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina – gave a speech to the Mike Campbell Foundation. The speech itself appears to have been pulled from the same “dusty file drawer” in which Richardson’s first “background paper” on Zimbabwe lay for “nearly a decade” (possibly in the same office where he carried out his desk-based “virtual trip of Zimbabwe” via Google Earth). It can best be described as a repetition of what we heard from Richardson in 2005 and again in 2007. While it is understood that speeches are often tailored to suit the audience, we might expect that a professor of economics would at least acknowledge some of the serious criticisms that were levelled against his earlier work; and that, having had almost another decade in which to reflect, he might have attempted to incorporate some of this criticism into his analysis, thus enabling him to see a bit more of what he calls “the unseen”, which includes more than simply the economic linkages that stem from secure property rights.

Richardson’s argument – now, as it was then – is based on the economic theory that private land title encourages higher levels of investment, better land management practices and greater productivity than is the case with communally owned land. He argues that people will invest in land – by clearing fields and “moving rocks” – as soon as they own the land and the stream of benefits that comes from it. He compares satellite photographs of commercial and communal land and argues that “The barrenness that one sees around [communal] villages in Africa is a result of lack of ownership”. He states that “Without property titles, communal farmers are destined to remain poor and reliant on crude means of farming…There is no collateral, so no way to raise money except through saving the meagre bit of money left over from sales of crops. That is destined to keep these farmers poor”. The theory is not new (which Richardson acknowledges), being more commonly associated with Garrett Hardin, Frank Knight, Douglas North and Hernando De Soto.

It was from this perspective that Richardson argued, in 2005/2007, that the “expropriation” of commercial farmland was the most important contributory factor leading to “the collapse of Zimbabwe”; and that declining food production was a direct result of the loss of secure property rights in the commercial farming sector and had little to do with drought (for which he was heavily criticised by Andersson, and rightly so). It would be hypocritical of me not to mention that I once made the same argument and that, to some extent, I was inspired by Richardson to study Zimbabwe’s land reforms, more closely. And yet, unlike Richardson, my perceptions of Zimbabwe’s fast track land reforms have changed, now informed by a much fuller understanding of the history of land in Zimbabwe and by eighteen months of fieldwork in the country’s communal and resettlement areas (which Richardson treats as one in the same).

There are many areas where his approach and argument fall down; but here I can mention only a few. First of all, it is simply reductionist. Neo-liberal economic theories and models reduce scientific explanation to simple cause and effect scenarios, a ‘one size fits all’ approach, which cannot accurately capture the nuances of the “real” world. It is simply ridiculous to draw a direct comparison between communal land in present-day Zimbabwe and the situation in 15th century England! Communal land degradation cannot be explained simply in terms of a lack of secure property rights but requires a fuller understanding of land and agricultural policy in both colonial and post-colonial Zimbabwe, as well as an acute agronomical knowledge, both of which Richardson seems to lack. Similarly, post-2000 events in Zimbabwe cannot be explained solely by the violation of property rights. The story is much more complex, as more recent research has shown, but Richardson consistently ignores or downplays all other explanatory factors.

He accuses others of ignoring the importance of property rights, but it is he that ignores the wider development literature which contradicts his argument. Take Kenya, for example, where the formalisation of property rights is failing to benefit the poor. He completely misses the diverse sets of livelihoods that exist at household level in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in Africa, which are not necessarily compatible with formal land titles.

He also refers to communal farming methods as “crude”, ignoring evidence that small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe are often well-educated, capable of adopting new technologies and have a proven ability to respond to market incentives. They are far from the passive victims “destined to remain poor” that Richardson portrays. Instead, many do invest in their land, in housing, in livestock and in assets (both productive and non-productive) despite the lack of private title. How does Richardson explain this? He does not. Again, he completely misses the diverse portfolio of livelihood strategies at household level which generate income for farming, and other needs, in the absence of credit facilities; and it never occurs to him that the thinking on “ownership” of land in Zimbabwe might not subscribe to the same Western notions of private property that he espouses.

His approach and argument are neither new nor informative. Instead, he succeeds only in helping to perpetuate some of the misconceptions about Zimbabwe’s smallholder farmers and the country’s recent land reforms. It is not that property rights do not matter, but that there is much more to the story of land reform in Zimbabwe than Richardson suggests.

by Gareth James


3 thoughts on “Neither new nor informative: response to Richardson on property rights

  1. Dave

    Yes, there is much more to the story on land reform in Zimbabwe, including the fact that former (white) commercial farmers who purchased their land after 1980 will not receive any compensation for that land, but former (black) commercial farmers will. The new constitution makes this explicit. Thus, racial discrimination has been legalised within that country.

  2. Pingback: Explaining shortfalls in food production | Researching Zimbabwe: Land, Agriculture and Livelihoods

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