Can the costs of Zimbabwe’s failed “fast track” land reform programme be quantified?

There is a recent article that has quoted renowned and respected economists who have pointed out that Zimbabwe has lost a total of US$17 billion in potential earnings over the past 17 years, due to from a combination of factors directly linked to the fast track land reform programme. Agricultural production lost due to stalled farm operations, destruction and rampant theft of farm infrastructure (such as irrigation equipment), the disruption in agricultural exports – including the disruption of export-driven supply chains – all led to falling output revenue that could’ve maintained economic stability, created new jobs, and strengthened the sector’s contribution to overall growth.

But that value understates the true extent of the cost of the fast track land reform. Zimbabwe did not just lose out on earnings from timber, cotton, tobacco, wheat, fresh flowers and other commercially-produced crops. The cost also paid a heavy price through exceptionally high levels of agricultural imports, particularly on food that the county was traditionally a surplus producer of. Zimbabwe has become the largest importer of maize in the region, and currently produces levels of wheat output that the country used to produce in the early 1960s. The country has spent at least US$3 billion in grain imports since the fast track land reform started, which brings the costs from export revenue lost, and imports gained at US$20 billion. With former white commercial farmers claiming compensation in the region of US$9 billion, the direct cost of ‘fast-tracked” land reforms Zimbabwe nears US$30 billion.

This estimate, of course, excludes lost job opportunities both within the agricultural sector and through direct and indirect linkages in the manufacturing sector. Not to mention the broader effects of general food insecurity, stunted economic growth, falling average incomes, and the collapse of social and economic services – such costs are difficult to quantify, or in some cases, difficult to even attribute them to land reforms. What is clear, however, is that the costs are quite staggering, and these can lead to an inter-generational crisis that a country might not be able to resolve easily.