Pro-poor mantra embeds dependency


TO David Cameron, the British Prime Minister: Compensating Zimbabwe’s white commercial farmers will revive agriculture, reinstate lost value of our land assets and erase the widespread poverty that you seem so concerned about.

Last week was reported that Catriona Laing, the British ambassador to Zimbabwe, said that the new government will not support any compensation scheme set up to help evicted white farmers in Zimbabwe. “In fact, the demand was met with scorn in Whitehall,” the report said.

“The UK has never agreed to accept responsibility for compensation, but we have always said that we would support a fair, transparent and pro-poor land reform programme as part of an international effort,” Laing said.

Nothing can be further from the truth! We are aware that the Americans and British together pledged close to $2 billion in 1979, which would be worth close to the full compensation bill today.

Firstly, President Robert Mugabe is right — at Lancaster House, the British government certainly gave undertakings to assist to fund land reform in order to address the colonial skewed ownership of land which was one of the major objectives of the armed struggle.

It is true that initial funds advanced to Zimbabwe were abused and there is no question about that. But remember there were very few willing sellers too. On that score I agree with Tony Blair’s assertion that the British stopped funding the transfer of land because of irregularities. It is incontrovertible that this was treated as a crony farm grab exercise by Zanu PF to the detriment of most.

However, because of misplaced British haughtiness on the land issue, we now have an estimated $10 billion worth of land assets that have zero value. The British have not come through to address whatever concerns they might have had with Zanu PF then in order to solve the land compensation issue.

For me, the fact that Zanu PF abused the funds does and should not absolve the British of their obligation that history placed on their lap. They have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Let me be clear — I am not playing victim here and putting all the responsibility on the British as is fashionable with our politicians.

In my opinion, there are many innovative and transparent ways to address the issue of land in Zimbabwe in order to remove the conflict.

The removal of this historical conflict is critical for revival of agriculture and development of the country in the future.

There is this idea that donor funding to us must be “pro-poor”. I do not agree with that approach. Large-scale farms can produce much cheaper and more effectively than small-scale farmers in order for the country to ensure food security at affordable prices.

This would allow small scale farmers to focus on growing high value crops instead of raw crops which are less profitable at a small-scale level.
What surprises me is that developed countries themselves invest in mechanised large-scale farming in order to reduce food prices but insist on funding small-scale farming in Africa.

A bag of maize is not food security; we need to provide more income-generating opportunities to the poor so that they can have money in their pockets to improve their nutrition and that of their families — that’s food security.

This “pro poor” mantra from donors actually creates a dependency syndrome where small scale farmers will never be able to come out of their poverty cycle and create assets and real wealth for themselves. Each and every year they must be funded by donors for inputs. That’s insufferable.

We need a new model in agriculture where large and small-scale farmers create a symbiotic relationship around industrial hubs that add value.

This creates immediate access to markets for small-scale farmers, gives then access to cheaper inputs in bulk including access to credit and they can make more profits.

A typical example now that comes to mind is the fact that Zimbabwe imports all its tomato paste and yet small-scale farmers who grow tomatoes have to dump tonnes and tonnes of tomatoes each day which they can’t sell at the marketplace.

If we create an industrial hub that produces tomato paste where small-scale farmers can sell their excess product, they will derive more value, reduce waste, and increase their profits. Everyone wins.

Rather than pouring millions into small-scale farmers to grow tomatoes, it is better therefore to fund industrial hubs. This to me is a more sustainable solution.

For us as a country to do this across all our agricultural value chains, we need the conflict on land to be removed by compensating commercial farmers and allowing any farmers who have the knowledge to work freely on large farms in partnership with small- scale farmers.

I think that everyone now appreciates that we cannot have a separate model as in the past where we had hugely prosperous white commercial farmers next to the poor marginalised black small-scale sector. That doesn’t work.

For me this solution would kick- start our economy and remove all the suffering that the British claim to be so concerned about.

We know, for example, that aid is an industry in itself and in some instances the solutions coming from there are not necessarily in our best interests.

The recent report in the Guardian on how more funds are actually going out of Africa than coming in through the aid industry is shameful. We Africans must stop that from happening.

We need to continually review the nature and implications of all the aid we are getting as a country and make a call whether it’s really about helping our poor or whether it’s really about creating jobs-for-pals from those countries that give the aid.

I have heard some rather fascinating anecdotes of how working for aid agencies in Africa is a well-sought-after job there — but I digress.

We can indeed put in the appropriate structures that ensure that all farmers are compensated fairly and the funds are not abused as before.

That is the conversation we should be having with the British now so that we can start a new chapter in our economic revival through agriculture.

The question is: Are the Brits serious? Somehow I don’t think so, but I am certainly willing to be enlightened on the matter lest I am being disingenuous.

l Vince Musewe is an economist and author based in Harare. You can contact him on


  1. Vince for the first time you have written something worthy of coming from an economist. If you wrote as critically as you have written here all the time well meaning people will take you seriously. The only thing that you got wrong was the reasons Tony Blair stopped funding land reform which had been reaffirmed by John Major before he lost to Tony. In Claire Short’s letter she actually accepts that funds advanced for land reform after independence had mostly been utilised for the right purposes.

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