Saturday, June 13, 2009

From John Robertson

My apologies for not being available in the past week. I had to make a presentation at a very interesting Conference on African Studies in Leipzig, Germany and was able to attend a good number of the lectures given by other presenters. It was an extremely wide-ranging affair, with 154 discussion panels that brought together academics, researchers and commentators on a staggering number of subjects. I have attached a synopsis of my own paper, which I am pleased to say did not generate any hostile reactions.

I was hoping that by now the inflation figures for May would be ready, but nothing is yet ready for publication. I will keep trying and will send the new table as soon as I can.

However, the IMF has now released its detailed Article IV assessment of Zimbabwe. It is available in PDF form, but as it is 828 kb. I feel I should send it only if you request it.

If you wish, you can download it from It is very revealing in its critical detail. The tables of Economic Indicators and the IMF's own forecasts will be of special interest.

Kindest regards,

European Conference on African Studies

Third meeting, Leipzig, June 2009

Paper by John Robertson, Zimbabwe
For Panel 127, Panel Organised Dr Beatrice Schlee

All the intricately balanced linkages and business relationships that used to help deliver success and food security to Zimbabwe’s population were damaged or broken by the land reform programme. Today, Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector consists largely of small farms that have no market value and no collateral value.
Despite subsidies and state funding, very few farmers have been able to move away from peasant farming methods and since land reform, every harvest has been extremely disappointing. Every year since land acquisitions started in earnest, Zimbabwe has had to import food.
Now, in any efforts that are made to restore productive capacity, government and all those international bodies that wish to assist the country will have to acknowledge that the country adopted policies that do not meet the requirements of a larger, better educated, more urbanised and much more demanding population.
Zimbabweans are fully capable of dealing with the challenges of commerce and a wide range manufacturing and service industries, but the country has need of efficient and dependable agricultural production. The population therefore has good reason to hope that large-scale capital-intensive cultivation methods will be reinstated, and that the need to rely on the small-scale subsistence methods brought back by Land Reform will fall away.
While small-scale subsistence farming might remain an important income source for the large communities that still follow traditional life-styles, this system cannot be relied upon to meet the needs of Zimbabwe’s large urban population. The subsistence methods are far too unreliable in Zimbabwe’s uncertain tropical climate and today the overall population is far too big.
The policies introduced to initiate the Land Reform Programme, which amounted to the nationalisation of land, are also incapable of attracting the investment needed for development in agriculture and every other economic sector. Important requirements for all forms of investment are secure and marketable individual property rights.
In trying to bring about the needed changes, Zimbabwe should not be looking for advice on how to make its badly chosen policies work a little better. Donor countries and development agencies should ensure that they are not trying to offer such advice, but should require the adoption of ideas with a proven track record.
In essence, the disbursal of assistance in any form should be made conditional upon Zimbabwe showing the needed willingness and determination to make radical changes and to adopt acceptable policies.
It is my contention that primary conditions, which should be declared non-negotiable, should include the empowerment of ordinary citizens through the acceptance and promotion of individual property rights, and that these rights should be given absolute protection in the proposed new Constitution.
Economic success empowers individuals, but as this success can dilute the powers of the ruling elites, many African governments seeking aid also seek the means to decide who will benefit. All those who try to assist Zimbabwe will have to remain alert to signs that the authorities are unwilling to permit success to be achieved by people other than those selected by the leadership.
This problem is common throughout the continent. Not all, but still too many African leaders are trying to recover for themselves the powers of feudal kings, claiming their sovereign right to do so, but then claiming it is the obligation of wealthier countries to supply aid to make up for the poor investment climate generated by feudal controls.
If they permitted individual land ownership and accepted the changes that would then affect their own status, they would usher in real development that would make aid unnecessary within a very short period.
Political leaders would lose their traditional advantages, but their countries would begin to prosper. People who at present feel the need to take their ideas out of Africa and develop them in countries where ownership rights are automatically recognised and respected would stay in their home countries and contribute their skills and talents to their own nations.
When political leaders cease to be the dispensers of patronage, they will have to become better leaders if they want to retain power. The benefits will flow to almost everybody, but of course the few people who previously had rights to assets, incomes and the people’s respect without having to work for them will have to adapt to a more demanding lifestyle.
For those elsewhere in the world, who are in a position to help Africa, the focus should be on why aid seems to be necessary only in countries that do not respect property rights.
The help Africa really needs should take the form of arguments for the adoption of economic policies that work, and for the assistance needed to build the institutional infrastructure that is required to deliver bankable collateral value to the land on which they live and work.
I do accept that deeply entrenched traditions would have to be set aside to accommodate such ideas, but it has to be said that Europe also had to permit deep-seated traditions to be extensively amended or changed beyond recognition to provide for the demands of rapidly changing production and transport methods, financing challenges and population growth.
I also accept that, as a way to earn a living, modern business requirements are vastly more challenging to the politically privileged than is the exercise of their entitlement to tributes from thousands of subjects. But it is this very aspect of contemporary life that sets Africa apart from Europe and North America.
In graduating from their status as subjects to the status of individuals with rights, the populations of most European countries were increasingly empowered. Their most effective form of empowerment developed with their increasing ability to acquire property, and when this began to encompass intellectual property as well as fixed assets, the development process was able to draw upon the previously almost untapped resourcefulness, imagination, and initiative of thousands of ambitious and inventive people.
It is worth noting that these still evolving ideals were among the driving forces that inspired the people who moved from Northern Europe to colonise North America. Property rights and the owners’ ability to access development finance from the banks soon accounted for the growing prosperity of the United States and Canada.
No such advantage was enjoyed by South America. This was colonised by the remaining feudal states in Europe, so feudalism was transplanted into the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Even now, hundreds of years later, the remnants of this burden are still very much in evidence, but the empowerment of ordinary citizens is at last gathering momentum.
In Africa, the economic empowerment of the populations of many countries is precisely the process that many governments are trying to prevent. In most cases, aid offered to such governments has not been permitted to empower anyone other than the authorities.
I am arguing that, while Africa certainly needs help, the help it needs should impose upon these authorities the requirement that they too accept the need for cultural change. The concept of property rights has to be accepted so that the very specific needs of local as well as foreign investors will not be frustrated by issues of no relevance to meeting business challenges that are already more than sufficiently exacting, demanding and unforgiving.
These are also the characteristics of the market place. Aid should be offered on condition that permit market forces to determine the distribution of resources, the prices and the levels of success achieved. By relinquishing their claimed rights to impose controls, the governments of most African countries will far more successfully retain their own talented business people and far more successfully attract new investment.
Basically, by backing off, these governments would start tapping the deep and powerful emotional commitment of the people most capable of taking initiatives. This form of energy is even more important than the money they can bring with them.
After very few years of the levels of development that would be made possible by accepting these measures, very nearly all the countries that are now claiming dependence on aid would become self-sufficient and their people would become considerably more prosperous. That, surely, should be the primary objective of the very generous institutions that stage conferences such as this one.
John Robertson
Harare, May 28 2009

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