Can Zimbabwe destroy its agriculture and still develop its economy?
Posted by CM on April 2, 2007
I spend much of my professional time searching for, reading, analyzing and disseminating news of agricultural developments in Africa. There are immense problems but I am pleased to say that there is also tremendous agricultural progress being made all over Africa. The picture is far from as bleak as is often portrayed, particularly in the western media.There are exceptions to this encouraging picture of hope. I regret to say that my own beloved homeland, Zimbabwe, is one of the exceptions. I know only too well how hard Zimbabweans work, how agriculture is deeply ingrained in the culture. And I don’t just mean subsistence agriculture either. The agricultural model of huge, intensely mono-cropped farm estates may have been fairly recently introduced (in the last several decades), but even at the small-scale level, farming both for family food security and extra to sell has always been a way of life as well as a source of pride.
I stumbled across this fascinating article by Peter Timmer entitled “Why Zimbabwe cannot leap-frog agriculture,” in which he asks whether it is possible for Zimbabwe to make any significant progress without the large-scale commercial farming sector which it has all but destroyed carefully, deliberately and piece by piece since 2000. I think this article should be required reading for every Zimbabwean, regardless of how “unsexy” a subject agriculture may be. It should certainly be read and filed by all politicians.
The article is short and jargon-free, but for those without the stomach for the original,
here’s a distillation : He starts off by playing a game in which destroying agriculture was not the by-product of the Mugabe government’s campaign against the MDC-supporting
white commercial farmers, but was a deliberate effort by that government to no longer
have the economy dependent on agriculture. The supposition is that the country would
be in a position to import all its food needs by engaging in more foreign-currency lucrative activities that would make it possible to do this. I know this sounds absurd now, given the fact that for many years we have struggled to import basic things like fuel, when many poorer countries have not had a fuel crisis, but let us indulge Timmer and play along with him – he is making an important point to the future of Zimbabwe, after the current madness is over and we are ready to rebuild.
He answers his own rhetorical question with,” Historically, the answer is clear. No country has been able to sustain a rapid transition out of poverty without raising productivity in its agricultural sector (with the special exceptions of Hong Kong and Singapore.) A dynamic agriculture raises labour productivity in the rural economy, pulls up wages, and gradually eliminates the worst dimensions of absolute poverty.”
This lays the foundation for other kinds of growth, paradoxically eventually making agriculture less important as other more lucrative opportunities become more sustainably available to the population. He say, “Ten years ago, Zimbabwe seemed headed down that path of sustainable development.”
He continues, “Viewed from this historical perspective, Zimbabwe now seems to be making a tragic mistake by destroying its commercial agriculture. Not only is the country no longer the bread basket of Africa, it is dependent on increasingly skeptical donors for food aid to feed its own people.”
He goes on to talk about how Zimbabwe’s unique experience of self-destruction will be pored over by development economists for the lessons it provides to the world. Timmer says the Zimbabwean “experiment” at destroying commercial agriculture and trying to replace it with communal agriculture “is likely to end badly,” an understatement if I ever heard one! It seems to me that we have gone way beyond the “experiment” stage to the harsh, frightening reality of economic decay and hunger.He ends by saying Zimbabwe’s is a story of the economic and other effects of “tragic political miscalculation.”
It is fascinating to me that this kind of very relevant discussion of Zimbabwe’s experience, and its lessons for the country’s reconstruction phase, is being carried out thousands of miles away by some American, instead of pre-occupying the thoughts and time of the politicians in Zimbabwe, as well as of all those Zimbabweans who spend time so much time discussing their country’s future. It is by deliberating on “unsexy” issues like these, not those that so often pre-occupy us, that eventual reconstruction in Zimbabwe will depend.