Long live land reform! Reflections on Michael Lipton’s classic book

Michael Lipton, the great development economist, died a little over a year ago. In the many tributes paid to him, his contributions to land debates were rather underplayed. Along with his 1977 book, Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias and World Development, his book, Land Reform in Developing Countries: Property rights and property wrongs, published in 2009, is a classic.

Michael and I were colleagues at IDS and Sussex, and he thought for a long time that I too was an economist (there weren’t many people who weren’t economists at IDS for the longest time, so a valid mistake!) and he later got to know about our work on land in Zimbabwe. Through Merle, his late wife, he had connections with South Africa and worked closely with the post-apartheid ministries responsible for land reform. In 1996, together with Merle, Frank Ellis and Mike de Klerk, the two volume book series was published, Land, Labour and Livelihoods in Rural South Africa. Sadly, many of these ideas never saw the light of day in the new South Africa – and with the new coalition government are now unfortunately even less likely to.

We didn’t always agree, but Michael always had interesting things to say about land and rural development and re-reading the 2009 book again recently reminded me of this. Given the way the World Bank debates are going (as reported in the last blog), Michael’s perspectives are fast disappearing from the economics mainstream. I therefore think it’s worth summarising some of the arguments of the book.

The goals of land reform: reducing poverty and inequality

The core of Michael’s argument is that small-scale farms are the most effective route to reducing poverty in most of the world, and that redistributive land reform is a vital policy when land is unequally distributed, which is nearly everywhere. The success of land reform in poverty reduction is in turn influenced not only by boosts in production, but by the effects on wider employment and non-farm activity. Across 456 pages, the case for land reform is made. As he says, news of land reform’s death is definitely premature.

The book notes that “countries with extreme land inequality tend also to have extreme income inequality; that makes poverty reduction harder by skewing growth away from the poor, and by reducing their political influence” (p. 3). In attempting to make the case for land reform as part of a progressive economic policy in the neoliberal era, the book observes how “far from impeding marketing liberalisation, appropriate land redistribution usually helps – and is sometimes essential – to make liberalisation pro-poor, growth-inducing or even politically sustainable or feasible” (p. 5). Maybe a lesson here for the new ‘pro-business’ South African government coalition?

In discussing the goals of land reform, not surprisingly given his long-standing work, Michael focuses on poverty reduction. He develops the well-known economic arguments for redistribution, but he is also attentive to questions of political economy – and the wider debates about justice, legitimacy and the political demand for redistribution. Unlike the World Bank economic analysis discussed in the last blog, Michael takes politics seriously (which is probably why he worked for his whole career at Sussex, not in Washington DC).

The importance of small-scale farms: debating the ‘inverse relationship’

The second chapter gets into the so-called ‘inverse relationship’, the proposition that in land-abundant settings small farms produce more per hectare than large farms, largely because of the labour supervision advantages of smallholdings and the scale-neutral benefits of ‘green revolution’ technologies (seeds and fertilisers). This is a core argument for land reform focused on small farms across the book.

Of course, there are many objections to this position – either from Marxists who see the inevitable progress of capitalism towards large-scale farms or from what Michael calls the ‘market-fetishists’ who see land reform as an interruption of the market-driven process of land consolidation and ‘structural transformation’ (see the last blog). And of course, as he acknowledges, as technologies change, the inverse relationship may be challenged as larger farms become more economically viable, efficient and productive.

Types of land reform

Across several chapters, the book goes through the pros and cons of four different types of land reform. These are:

  • First, the ‘classic’ land reform with the creation of land ceilings and floors and administration through a state land authority (as In India, for example).
  • Second, tenancy and tenure reform, allowing rights to tenants and offer land security through various forms of ‘titling’ to existing landowners, around which there is much excitement today given the potentials of digitisation (see the last blog).
  • Third, what is called ‘the terrible detour’ of collectivisation, as occurred in the Soviet Union and much of Eastern Europe/west Asia, as well as China, Vietnam and elsewhere, which was then followed by the troubled process of decollectivisation.
  • Fourth, what was termed ‘new-wave’ land reform, based on market-based instruments, and willing-seller, willing-buyer arrangements.

The question asked in the book is, do they deliver on land reform in the sense of reducing poverty and inequality? The answers, not surprisingly, are mixed.

Land reform is dead, long live land reform!

In the final chapter, the book addresses the claim that ‘land reform is dead’ – either dead because it was never really alive, except in rare, revolutionary situations; that it is dying as it’s no longer a priority; or that it ought to die, as farmland inequality is no longer a major source of poverty, and that the advantages of small-scale farming have been reversed by technological change, globalisation and market liberalisation.

All these claims are systematically rejected through many examples from around the world. Land reform – in many shapes and forms – is very much alive, with very significant numbers of people (the book estimates 1.5 billion) having benefited from some type of land reform in the past decades.

The book was written before our work on Zimbabwe was widely circulated, especially through our 2010 Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities. In his book, Michael is harsh on Zimbabwe’s post-2000 land reform experience, claiming that Zimbabwe has “done for land reform what “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, did for men’s hairdressing” (p.3)!

His negative view was influenced by his South African interlocutors, but once he had looked at the evidence, which chimed with the main thrust of the arguments in his book – that land reform does produce benefits, especially on small farms, for farmers, labour and the wider economy – his position changed somewhat, I am glad to say.

Advocating land reform as central to development

This is an enormously impressive book, produced as a labour of love during his retirement, without research support. As an expert chess player (and indeed author of several books on chess problems), Michael’s arguments move in rigorously logical steps, often slightly annoyingly pedantic and with lots of lists of points, until arriving (sometimes rather dogmatically) at the checkmate conclusion. The logic is indisputable, but sometimes the definitiveness of the recommendations slightly jar.

Through his work, Michael was a strong advocate for land reform as a route to addressing the twin scourges of deep poverty and gross inequality that plague rural settings across the world. While he hedges on questions of compulsory acquisition of land, he is also critical of tenure reform/titling and market-based models. But overall, he makes a strong case for land reform being central to questions of development.

The book concludes, “Land reform is a live, often burning, issue twenty years after the end of the Cold War. The debate about land reform is alive and well. So is land reform itself. And so they should be” (p. 322). In sum, the arguments for land reform are certainly not dead, and re-reading his book is a good way of bringing them back to life. For those trying to address the deep inequalities in land ownership in southern Africa, as elsewhere, it remains a vital book.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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