Mugabe's land seizures: The bright side

British taxpayers spend £500,000 on project to find the positive in persecution

£489,983.29 of British taxpayers money was used to fund an effort to find the bright side of Robert Mugabe's racist land seizures in Zimbabwe.

This was the total sum spent by the United Kingdom's Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department of International Development (DFID) on a research project titled "Livelihoods after land reform: the poverty impacts of land redistribution in southern Africa."

The fruits of some of that research have recently found their way into print in the book Zimbabwe's Land Reform: Myths and Realities by the University of Sussex academic, Ian Scoones. In an article published in The Guardian (London) on Monday - headed "Don't Condemn Zimbabwe" - Scoones summarized his findings. Although he acknowledged that the "major restructuring" of the agrarian sector in Zimbabwe had severely hit exports of beef, wheat, tobacco, coffee and tea. The good news was that there had been a dramatic increase in the production of "edible beans".

In Masvingo province Scoones found that "over half" of 400 households sampled that had benefited from the land seizures were "accumulating and investing." His research, Scoones claimed, had "dispelled the assumption that Zimbabwe's controversial reform was ‘all bad'."

The ESRC/DFID grant was awarded to Professor Ben Cousins of the University of the Western Cape in South Africa in October 2006. The stated objectives of the project were to explore the extent to which land reform in "southern Africa is achieving poverty reduction and improvements of livelihoods." Case studies were conducted in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Scoones was a co-investigator and headed up the Zimbabwe component.

The End of Award Report submitted to the ESRC by Cousins, and endorsed by Scoones, states that the project found that "positive livelihood impacts are more in evidence in Zimbabwe than elsewhere, because of (a) greater flexibility in land use and livelihoods, if only by default; and (b) the much larger scale of redistribution." They boast that their project "has contributed greatly to a more nuanced understanding of land reform in Zimbabwe".

The violent racial dispossession of the white minority in Zimbabwe represents one of the great racist crimes of the 21st century. It was also a calamity for ordinary black Zimbabweans, and the region. DFID notes on its website:

"Once considered one of the continent's success stories, Zimbabwe's economy has shrunk by half in the last decade. In early 2009, over seven million Zimbabweans received food aid and hyperinflation had reached the second highest level in history. The migration of skilled labour, combined with shrinking government budgets and increased corruption, led to the deterioration of the country's previously impressive education and health systems."

Up until 2000 many Western intellectuals had worked hard to clear the path, ideologically, for Mugabe's actions by persistently defining white commercial farmers as the main ‘problem' of post-independence Zimbabwe. During the 2000 to 2002 period a number of London based Guardian columnists did what they could to assist the land seizure effort by (inter alia) dredging up and publicising everything that could be said against white Zimbabweans.

In the context it is unsurprising that DFID and the ESRC devoted such a considerable sum of money to a project aimed, not at examining the ideological origins of this catastrophe, but at underplaying the consequences.

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