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Zimbabwe command agriculture and the politics of subsidies

Subsidies are always political.

They are ways of directing political power and patronage to particular groups, who those in power want the support of.

In the 1980s, it was the communal areas, who had backed the liberation war, with the political compact being that rural people (and their votes) needed securing.

In the 2000s, it was the new resettlement farmers (notably A1 smallholders) who required support, as they were the base that ZANU-PF had to rely on in a succession of contested elections.

Today, while an economic-technocratic position of commercial boosting production is well articulated, the focus is on larger, more connected A2 farmers who are being favoured.

As the core of the middle class, professional, business and security service elite who benefited from such land, but had not been using it effectively, securing their support politically, and ensuring greater economic viability of A2 farms (while securing food for the nation) had become a political imperative.

And given the positioning of the VP and the ED/Lacoste faction, very much in line with a political dynamic unfolding now.

As with the support of emerging white settler agriculture by the colonial government of Rhodesia in the 1930s and 40s, this may be seen in the future as a successful investment.

Long-term commitment by states to transformation – through innovation and core support – is increasingly seen as essential in any economic strategy.

Gone are the days of the Washington Consensus when subsidy was always a dirty word.

But a wider strategic debate about such investment (including more broadly finance and credit in agriculture) and approaches to exit is needed, separating it from the complex machinations of intra-party politics and faction fighting.

As with Zambia and Malawi (and India and so many other countries besides where electoral politics is heavily reliant on a rural vote), extricating the state from subsidy addiction is tough.

Phasing out a fuel or fertiliser subsidy can result in protests, and an electoral backlash.

Patronage and dependency relationships get set up, and peoples’ political careers and parties’ fortunes, become tied up with subsidies.

Zimbabwe urgently needs a more thorough-going debate about what type of subsidies make sense for rebuilding agriculture, avoiding the ideological knee-jerk that all subsidies are bad, but at the same time countering the tendency of patronage lock-in that subsidy programmes, tied to political cycles, always generate.

By Ian Scoones. This article was originally published on Zimbabweland

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